Arson not suspected in Rio Carnival fire

Threads of smoke rose from the charred warehouses of three major samba groups Tuesday as workers salvaged what they could of floats and costumes so they can put on some sort of a show before millions celebrating Rio de Janeiro's famed Carnival in less than a month.

Police said they did not believe arson caused the blaze Monday that consumed thousands of costumes, sculptures and floats built for the festival, but a police spokesman said investigators were still trying to determine what set off the flames.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the fire was that it destroyed the costumes of low-income community members who work on them in the year leading up to the parade. Devastated Carnival group members scrambled to make plans for the best show possible.

"The group is in mourning, but we are going to build our Carnival up again," said Cahe Rodrigues, the theme developer for Grande Rio, the group hardest hit by the fire. "All of the members will be dressed up. No one will be left out."

Grande Rio's losses alone were estimated at $5.5 million.

The city's mayor, Eduardo Paes, guaranteed up to $890,000 in funding to help the recovery effort. With 28 days left before the parade, the biggest fight is against time, Rodrigues said.

Rio's Carnival attracts more than 700,000 tourists annually and pumps $500 million into the city's economy.

The Independent League of Samba Groups that organizes Carnival competition has promised to set up tents for the burned-out groups, and the unaffected groups have promised to lend labor, spare parts and machinery.

On Tuesday, the groups were scouring the city for additional materials — plastic foam, sequins, feathers, resin, paint — to rebuild as much as possible, said Grande Rio spokesman Avelino Ribeiro.

Costumes made for tourists who participate in the parades — and who pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege — were not affected by the fire. They are hired out to seamstresses who work from home.

Neusa Barros da Silva, a 67-year-old who parades with Portella, another of the samba groups affected by the blaze, was busy Tuesday feeding spools of lace through her sewing machine, churning out a pile of frothy white material to ruffle up one of 300 identical skirts.

"I do this work with all the satisfaction in the world," she said. On Tuesday, she was helping her sister finish costumes for Grande Rio.

"I'm feeling good, helping out those who deserve it," she said. "There is always a way, isn't there?"

Grande Rio's parade has nine sections of visitors who pay for the privilege — and all their costumes will be ready on time, said Katia Costa, president of one of the sections.

"They give people who don't live here, who aren't a part of the community, a chance to participate," Costa said of the paying sections. "They also help fund the outfits of those who can contribute their time and work."

A few visitors who paid for their costumes have asked for their money back because Grande Rio and the two other affected groups won't be competing for honors in this year's parade, even though they will still participate, she. But Costa isn't worried about the group's ability to impress.

"We can go out there in a T-shirt and we'll still have a lot of voice, a lot of samba, and the strength of our community," she said. "We'll silence the avenue with our song."

Although the vast majority of revelers celebrate Carnival on the streets, dancing and drinking behind bands that meander Rio's neighborhoods, the celebration culminates with the competitive parades — elaborate shows put on by Rio's poorest neighborhoods and watched by tens of millions of Brazilian on television.

Every year, each group chooses a theme and tells a story through song and through the intricate designs of costumes and floats. The top three are chosen in a hotly contested election by judges as fans follow from the bleachers or on television. The lowest ranked group drops to the secondary league.

The samba association announced after a Monday night meeting that the three damaged groups would not be judged this year, and said no association would be knocked into the lower league.