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Fire destroys Brazil's National Museum

"I see the history of my country becoming ashes. It has no price. I'm devastated."
Image: Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro
A fire broke out Sunday at the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil.Ricardo Moraes / Reuters

RIO DE JANEIRO — A massive fire that raced through Brazil's 200-year-old National Museum on Sunday is believed to have destroyed much of its collection of more than 20 million items, ranging from archaeological finds to historical memorabilia.

The destruction of the building was an "incalculable loss for Brazil," President Michel Temer said in a statement. "Two hundred years of work, research and knowledge were lost."

It wasn't immediately clear how the fire began. There were no reports of injuries, the museum said.

Fire department spokesman Roberto Robadey said crews got off to a slow start fighting the blaze because the two fire hydrants closest to the museum were not functioning. Instead, trucks had to be sent to get water from a nearby lake.

But he added that some of the museum's pieces had been spared.

"We were able to remove a lot of things from inside with the help of workers of the museum," Robadey told Globo News.

Live television broadcast images of the fire, which began after the end of visiting hours at 5 p.m., burning out of control throughout the building late into the night.

"It's a national obligation to reconstruct it from the ashes."

"It is an enormous tragedy," museum director Alexander Kellner said in a statement posted on Facebook early Monday.

He added that they haven't yet been able to measure the total damage to the collection.

The museum, which is tied to the Rio de Janeiro federal university and the education ministry, was founded in 1818 and is proudly celebrating its bicentennial. It houses several landmark collections, including Egyptian artifacts and the oldest human fossil found in Brazil.

The museum had suffered from years of neglect under numerous governments, the institution's vice-director the Globo TV network on Sunday night.

"We never got anything from the federal government," said the official, Luiz Duarte. "We recently finalized an agreement with [state-run development bank] BNDES for a massive investment, so that we could finally restore the palace and, ironically, we had planned on a new fire prevention system."

Rio residents watched the blaze in horror.

"I see the history of my country becoming ashes. It has no price. I'm devastated," Rio resident Isabelle Ramalho told the Associated Press.

In a statement posted on its website in June, BNDES agreed to financing of $5.35 million to "physically restore the historic building" and also to carry out work to "guarantee more security to its collections."

The National Museum of Brazil burns overnight.Ricardo Moraes / Reuters

On Instagram, Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella called on the country to rebuild.

"It's a national obligation to reconstruct it from the ashes, recompose every eternal detail of the paintings and photos. Even if they are not original, they continue to be a reminder of the royal family that gave us independence, the (Portuguese) empire and the first constitution and national unity," he said.

Museums from around the world, including the Louvre in France and The British Library, tweeted condolences and messages of support to Brazil.

Ross Cullen, Michele Neubert and Rachel Elbaum contributed.