'Incalculable loss' as massive fire tears through Brazil's 200-year old National Museum

A huge fire engulfed Brazil's 200-year-old National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, lighting up the night sky with towering flames as firefighters and museum workers raced to save historical relics.

Too early to say which artifacts have been destroyed and what was saved, museum director says

A police officer clears the area during a fire at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Millions of items have likely been destroyed. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

A huge fire engulfed Brazil's 200-year-old National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, lighting up the night sky with towering flames as firefighters and museum workers raced to save historical relics.

The esteemed museum, which houses artifacts from Egypt, Greco-Roman art and some of the first fossils found in Brazil, was closed to the public at the time of the fire, which broke out at 7:30 p.m. Sunday local time, it said in a statement.

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

Roberto Robadey, a spokesperson for the fire department, said 80 firefighters were battling the blaze and that by midnight, it was "just about under control" and should be out within a few hours.

National Museum personnel embrace outside the burned building in Rio de Janeiro on Monday. (Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press)

President Michel Temer called it "a sad day for all Brazilians."

"Two hundred years of work, investigation and knowledge have been lost," Temer said in a statement.

Museum director Alexander Kellner said Monday that part of the collection was destroyed Sunday night, but that it was not yet possible to detail what was lost.

The museum had 20 million items, including Egyptian and Greco-Roman artifacts and the oldest human skull found in the Western Hemisphere. It was once the home of the Portuguese royal family.

Smoke was still rising from the burned-out hulk of the building early Monday, as much of it appeared to have been gutted. A few hundred people crowded at the gates of the site, some in tears.

Fire hydrants not working

Robadey said firefighters 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.

The museum was founded in 1818. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

Connected to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the museum has expositions that include anthropology, archeology and paleontology, among others.

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

"Everybody wants to be supportive now. We never had adequate support," said Luiz Fernando Dias 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."

In a statement posted on its website in June, BNDES agreed to financing of $6.9 million Cdn to "physically restore the historic building" and carry out work to "guarantee more security to its collections."

Presidential contender highly critical

Latin America's largest nation has struggled to emerge from its worst recession in decades. The state of Rio de Janeiro has been particularly hard hit in recent years thanks to a combination of falling world prices of oil, one of its major revenue sources, mismanagement and massive corruption.

Just over a month before national elections, even before the flames were put out, the fire was leading to recriminations about dilapidated infrastructure and budget deficits in the city that hosted the 2016 Summer Olympics.

People scrambled to rescue items from the blaze. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

"Unfortunately, given the financial straits of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and all the other public universities the last three years, this was a tragedy that could be seen coming," tweeted Marina Silva, one of the leading presidential candidates.

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.

With files from Reuters