Fragments found in Brazil museum fire provide some hope

Firefighters stand in front of the National Museum after an overnight fire in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. Firefighters dug through the burned-out hulk of Brazil’s National Museum on Monday, a day after fire gutted the building, as the country mourned the irreplaceable treasures lost and pointed fingers over who was to blame. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Federal police investigate the cause of the fire at Brazil's National Museum that tore through the structure in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Museum spokesman Marcio Martins said the museum's collection would first need to be examined by the federal police, who are investigating the still-unknown cause of the fire, and experts would then examine items to determine their identity. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
This undated handout photo provided by Brazil's National Museum shows a skeletal replica of a dinosaur called Maxakalisaurus tapai, at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. It is one of the museum's most popular displays. Found in Minas Gerais in 1998, the excavation and reconstruction of the dinosaur took 10 years. (Museu Nacional Brasil via AP)
Firefighters spray water on the facade of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Forensic investigators and researchers awaited for access into the museum's interior, gutted in a fire, to find out how the blaze began and what remains of the 20 million artifacts that made the museum one of the most important in Latin America. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
Museum security guard Felipe Farias Silva shows the page of a book he found across the street from Brazil's National Museum, which he believes belongs to the institution in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Flames tore through the museum Sunday night, and officials have said much of Latin America’s largest collection of treasures might be lost. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
This undated handout photo provided by Brazil's National Museum shows a mummified individual at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, who was found in a cave in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais in the nineteenth century. Natural preservation is rare because of the tropical climate and acid soil, which accelerate the decomposition of the body. This discovery was donated to Emperor Dom Pedro II by the coffee grower Maria José de Santana, owner of the farm where the cave was located. (Museu Nacional Brasil via AP)
Museum security guard Felipe Farias Silva shows the page of a book he found across the street from Brazil's National Museum, which he believes belongs to the institution in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Flames tore through the museum Sunday night, and officials have said much of Latin America’s largest collection of treasures might be lost. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
This undated handout photo provided by Brazil's National Museum shows a Mesoamerican mortar at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. The piece was found by workers at Ilha de São João, Rio Trombetas, in the service of engineer João Henrique Diniz and delivered to the Rondon Commission, who offered it to the National Museum in 1929.(Museu Nacional Brasil via AP)
This undated handout photo provided by Brazil's National Museum shows a nocturnal bird known as the giant potoo, at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. These birds choose a trunk that resembles their body and spend the whole day absolutely still so that they go unnoticed by the daytime predators. (Museu Nacional Brasil via AP)
Firefighters spray water on the facade of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Forensic investigators and researchers awaited for access into the museum's interior, gutted in a fire, to find out how the blaze began and what remains of the 20 million artifacts that made the museum one of the most important in Latin America. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
Federal police prepare to enter the Brazil's National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Forensic investigators and researchers awaited access to the museum, gutted in a fire on Sunday, to find out how the blaze began and what remains of the 20 million artifacts that made the museum one of the most important in Latin America. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
A girl stands in front the statue of Pedro II, in front of the Brazil's National Museum, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Forensic investigators and researchers awaited access Tuesday to the museum, gutted in a fire, to find out how the blaze began and what remains of the 20 million artifacts that made the museum one of the most important in Latin America. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
Museum security guard Felipe Farias Silva shows the page of a book he found across the street from Brazil's National Museum, that suffered a fire, which he believes belongs to the institution in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Flames tore through the museum Sunday night, and officials have said much of Latin America’s largest collection of treasures might be lost. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
In this undated handout photo provided by Brazil's National Museum a meteorite called Bendego sits at the entrance of the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Weighing more than five tons, the meteorite is the largest ever found in Brazil. It was found in the state of Bahia in the 18th century. (Museu Nacional Brasil via AP)
This undated handout photo provided by Brazil's National Museum shows the Egyptian wooden coffin of Sha-Amun-em-su, at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Among the Egyptian relics is the mummy of Sha-Amun-In-Su, dating back to 750 B.C. It was given to Dom Pedro II by Egyptian Viceroy Ismail Pasha during a visit to the Middle East. (Museu Nacional Brasil via AP)
The National Museum, seen from above, stands gutted after an overnight fire in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. A huge fire engulfed Brazil’s 200-year-old museum, lighting up the night sky with towering flames as firefighters and museum workers raced to save historical relics from the blaze. (AP Photo/Mario Lobao)
Museum security guard Felipe Farias Silva shows the page of a book he found across the street from Brazil's National Museum, that suffered a fire, which he believes belongs to the institution in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Flames tore through the museum Sunday night, and officials have said much of Latin America’s largest collection of treasures might be lost. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
This undated handout photo provided by Brazil's National Museum shows a priestess/princess Takushit statue dating to 730 B.C., at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Flames tore through the museum Sunday night, Sept. 2, 2018, and officials have said much of Latin America's largest collection of treasures might be lost. (Museu Nacional Brasil via AP)
This undated handout photo provided by Brazil's National Museum shows a tripod glass vase originating from Pompeii, circa 1 A.D., at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Flames tore through the museum Sunday night, Sept. 2, 2018, and officials have said much of Latin America's largest collection of treasures might be lost. (Museu Nacional Brasil via AP)
This undated handout photo provided by Brazil's National Museum shows a Para ceramic piece of a sitting man circa 1,000 a 1,400 A.D., at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Flames tore through the museum Sunday night, Sept. 2, 2018, and officials have said much of Latin America's largest collection of treasures might be lost. (Museu Nacional Brasil via AP)
This combination of two undated handout photos provided by Brazil's National Museum shows the skull of Luzia Woman, left, and a reconstruction of Luzia, right, at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Discovered during an excavation in 1975 outside of the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, Luzia's fossilized remains sat in storage for two decades. In the mid-1990s, tests by scientists determined it was the oldest fossil in the Americas. It was given the name "Luzia," homage to "Lucy," the famous 3.2-million-year-old remains found in Africa. (Museu Nacional Brasil via AP)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Firefighters found bone fragments from a collection in the still-smoldering National Museum, an official said Tuesday, raising hopes that a famed skull might somehow have survived a massive blaze that turned historic and scientific artifacts to ashes.

Flames tore through the museum Sunday night, and officials have said much of Latin America's largest collection of treasures might be lost. Aerial photos of the main building showed only heaps of rubble and ashes in the parts of the building where the roof collapsed.

The firefighters "found fragments of bones in a room where the museum kept many items, including skulls," said Cristiana Serejo, the museum's vice director. "We still have to collect them and take them to the lab to know exactly what they are."

In its collection of about 20 million items, one of the most prized possessions is a skull called Luzia, which is among the oldest fossils ever found in the Americas.

Museum spokesman Marcio Martins noted that the collection contains hundreds of skulls, and all material would first need to be examined by the Federal Police, who are investigating the still-unknown cause of the fire. Experts will then examine them to determine their identity.

Some objects were rescued from the flames on Sunday night by a professor who rushed into the blaze. Paulo Buckup, a professor of zoology at the museum, recounted Tuesday how he and a few other people pulled out mollusks and marine specimens, going into and out of the building several times until it became too dangerous. He said the group tried to identify in the dark the most irreplaceable objects, but said they only saved a "minuscule portion of the heritage that was lost."

Many have already said that regardless of what is salvaged, the loss will be immeasurable. Marina Silva, a candidate for president in upcoming elections, called it a "lobotomy of Brazilian history."

The Globo newspaper wrote in an editorial published Tuesday: "The size of the catastrophe is vast: It struck the national memory, through the loss of the important historical collection; it affected the sciences, interrupting research; and it represents a cultural loss impossible to quantify. We only know that it is enormous."

The disaster has led to a series of recriminations about who was to blamed, and it has raised concerns that other institutions might be at risk. The national development bank announced Tuesday that it would make $6 million available for museums looking to upgrade their security or fire-prevention plans.

Investigators were first allowed to enter the main building Monday, but it is still off-limits to researchers. Instead, some scientists were focusing attention on an annex on the site, where vertebrate specimens were housed. The fire didn't reach the area, but it caused the electricity to fail, threatening some artifacts, said Marcelo Wexler, a researcher in the vertebrate department.

"We have animals that need to be frozen, and they were rotting without electricity," Wexler said.

In a sign of the enormity of the task ahead, a man created a stir when he arrived on the scene carrying a document he said belonged to the institution that he had found across the street. A group of journalists crowded in to see the piece of paper, which was burned at the edges and contained printed text and was in a clear plastic folder. It was not clear what it was or if it was authentic.

"I came here to give it back. I am sure there is much more that flew around," said Felipe Silva, who said he was a guard at the museum.

Even as efforts turned to searching the rubble, firefighters were still occasionally directing water at the building, where some embers were still burning. Eduardo Rosse, a fire official, said that was normal for a blaze of this size.

Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, a museum official, said Monday that anything held in the main building was probably destroyed, and Serejo told the G1 news portal that 90 percent of the collection may have been destroyed.

But on Tuesday, she held out some hope, telling journalists that staff members were "reasonably optimistic about finding some more items inside."

She added that UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural agency, had offered financial and technical assistance. French and Egyptian officials also have offered help. The museum was home to Egyptian artifacts, and Egypt's ministries of foreign affairs and antiquities have expressed concern over the fate of those objects.

With the cause still under investigation, many already have begun to fix blame, saying years of government neglect left the museum underfunded and unsafe.

Roberto Leher, rector of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, to which the museum was linked, said it was well known that the building was vulnerable to fire and in need of extensive repair. In fact, two years ago, federal prosecutors in Rio de Janeiro began investigating safety conditions in the building.

The institution had recently secured approval for nearly $5 million for a planned renovation, including an upgrade of the fire-prevention system, but the money had not yet been disbursed.

On Monday, government officials promised $2.4 million to shore up the building and promised to rebuild the museum.

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Associated Press writers Sarah DiLorenzo in Sao Paulo and Hamza Hendawi in Cairo contributed to this report.

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National Museum website: http://www.museunacional.ufrj.br/

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