By Nelson Belen, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – One day after the devastating inferno that consumed the National Museum of Brazil and most of its irreplaceable artifacts, local officials revealed that some of the museum’s most prized artifacts may have yet survived the blaze thanks to the heroic efforts of museum staff, technicians, and students.
A group of around forty of them arrived on the scene shortly after the start of the blaze at around 7:30 PM Sunday and charged into the burning building in a last-ditch attempt to save some of its most valuable pieces.
“We decided to select the material of greatest scientific and irreplaceable value,” explained museum paleontologist Paulo Buckup to Globo news.
Buckup, who has worked at the National Museum since 1996, led the group’s harrowing entry into the museum. “There were constant collapses while we were inside. There were falling objects and lots of smoke. In one area we realized there was a real risk of the ceiling collapsing, we could not assess when the third floor would fall.”
On Monday, Buckup and the rest of the staff were being credited with saving some of the museum’s more than 40,000 mollusk specimens. “These items are unique…Most of them no longer exist, there were species not yet described,” exclaimed Buckup.
Museum staff also held out hope that some pieces may have survived the blaze due to being stored in special metal cabinets made to withstand high temperatures and impact.
Among these rare pieces include Luzia, a 12,000-year-old skull considered one of South America’s oldest human fossils.
“The people went in the morning trying to find Luzia, it looks like she was in a special container, but there is a lot of debris,” explained the museum’s deputy director Cristiana Serejo. “We do not know if inside this container she could have survived.”
Museum researcher, Helder de Paula Silva, held out hope that the some of the museum’s dinosaur collection, including the bones of the long-necked dinosaur Maxakalisaurus may also have survived.
“We still hope that the [dinosaur] collection has been saved, because a good part of this material was not in the part that was most affected,” said Silva.
However, even if those pieces could have survived the fire, he cautioned that they may have been destroyed when the museum’s two upper floors collapsed.
“Most of these containers were on the ground floor, and were hit by material that fell from the upper floors. So we can not know the state of the pieces that were inside. But,” he added, “we are hopeful that something has been preserved.”
Local reports have also confirmed that the Bendegó meteorite, the largest iron meteorite found on Brazilian soil, and once the second largest ever found in the world, also survived the fire.
“The situation is very bad, but there is still hope,” exclaimed museum director Alexander Kellner, to reporters on Monday. “I’ve been inside, there are places where we can retrieve some things. We still do not know what, but I have hope.”
As the scientific and cultural community mourn the devastating loss of most of the museum’s vast and irreplaceble collection, investigators are beginning to piece together clues as to the possible cause of the blaze.
Brazil’s culture minister, Sérgio Leitão, theorized to the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo that the fire may have been the result of an electrical short-circuit or a stray homemade, paper hot-air balloon.
But with the official cause of the blaze under investigation, many blame inadequate maintenance and lack of funding as the key factors behind the fire.
“For many years, we fought with different administrations to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed,” lamented museum vice-director Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte. “My feeling is of total dismay and immense anger.”