February 7, 2011
Fire in Rio Damages Carnaval Preparations and Dims Hopes of Many Performers
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — An early-morning fire in a warehouse district on Monday destroyed the costumes and dimmed the hopes of at least three prominent samba schools competing in Rio de Janeiro’s annual Carnaval parade. But city officials vowed that the event would go forward.
The fire in Samba City, an area near Rio’s port, destroyed floats and an estimated 8,400 costumes just a little less than a month before some 35 samba schools were to dance and parade with their elaborate floats in the world’s most famous Carnaval celebration, samba school officials said.
The unexplained fire was another psychological blow to a metropolitan area still recovering from landslides in nearby hillside communities last month that killed more than 840 people and left about 8,700 homeless. The natural disaster was Brazil’s worst.
The annual Carnaval parade is a sacred ritual to many Rio residents and an industry that generates thousands of jobs in the area. The schools invest millions of dollars in their parades, which involve up to 5,000 participants for each school, including dancers, drum queens and drummers.
Officials said the fire began around 7 a.m. and was contained after four hours. A thick plume of smoke that resembled a mushroom cloud reached high into the sky and was visible a few miles away. Many workers from the samba schools were sleeping inside the warehouses and were awoken by the smoke. Saimon García, 26, an artist for the school Acadêmicos do Grande Rio, jumped from the fourth floor, but was not badly injured.
The blaze damaged the hopes of the three samba schools whose warehouses were most affected by the fire: União da Ilha do Governador, Portela and Acadêmicos do Grande Rio. They are among 12 samba schools scheduled to parade in a special stadium known as the Sambódromo on March 6 and 7, the most prestigious slots of the four-day competition. The city of Rio constructed Samba City to house the elite schools.
“Our Carnaval was ready, beautiful; everything was perfect,” said Hélio de Oliveira, president of Acadêmicos do Grande Rio. But “everything was burned,” including eight floats and more than 3,000 costumes, Mr. de Oliveira said.
Rio officials said that they were investigating the blaze, but that their preliminary assessment had found no evidence that the fire had been started intentionally. Aylton Jorge Junior, who runs Samba City and is often called its “mayor,” said, “It seemed that the fire started in the warehouse of União da Ilha, but they deny that.”
The schools will now have to work round the clock to try to create costumes and floats that they normally spend a year making. Workers were downcast and tense on Monday afternoon near the site of the fire.
But officials from competing samba schools expressed solidarity, saying they would try to lend space, materials and professionals — whatever it took to see the rival schools through the competition. Samba school presidents met late in the day to discuss how they could help the schools affected by the fire.
Eduardo Paes, Rio’s mayor, said the city would provide assistance to the affected schools, which he vowed would all parade in the competition “one way or another.” He said the reconstruction of Samba City would begin “immediately.”
An emotional Mr. de Oliveira promised that Acadêmicos do Grande Rio would parade the 80-minute circuit down the Sambódromo. “The fire burned everything,” he said, “but it didn’t burn our Carnaval spirit.”
Roberta Nápolis contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.
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