NEW DELHI -- If you grew up in Delhi, chances are you have at least one photo of yourself as a child, posing in front of the giant fake dinosaur statue in the lawns of the National Museum of Natural History. Mine has me hugging the dinosaur's lower back, where my father had hoisted me as someone took a photo. I wasn't scared of dinosaurs yet — the release of the first Jurassic Park movie was still a few months away — and the dinosaur's body was cool to touch, as it crouched in a half-snarl outside the museum.
Now, the dinosaur is perhaps the only remnant of the 38-year-old institution, gutted in a massive fire that broke out early this morning.
An exhibit on conservation on the third floor of the museum. (Credit: Museum archives)
The blaze, that started on the sixth floor of the FICCI building, where the museum was housed, quickly spread to the lower floors, feeding on decades' worth of careful curation placed inside wooden cabinets. The stuffed animals—the patient work of dozens of taxidermists—and shelves and shelves of exhibits, were easy targets for a fire that was already beyond control. Teams of firefighters who initially reached the spot reported the temperature inside the building to be as high as 800 degrees celsius. It was only after three hours of intensive firefighting that the inferno was contained, followed by four more hours of cooling operations.
"It was a Herculean task for us," said G.S. Mishra, director, Delhi Fire Services. "The building foundation has weakened... Everything inside has been destroyed."
But the worst was yet not over. The seven lakh litres of water used to douse the flames, at a speed of 8,000 litres per minute, stripped away the concrete that hadn't melted in the fire already, leaving the iron pillars and girders of the building exposed. Structural engineers who visited the building later on Tuesday morning declared the building unsafe. Official sources in the local civic agency said that building was unstable. Officials have secured the area, and aren't allowing anyone within 50 metres of the vicinity of the building. It is unclear if anything that is left inside the museum can be rescued, given the current precarious condition of the structure.
An exhibit of endangered animals on the first floor of the museum. (Credit: Museum archives)
Naveen Singh, a 45 year old security guard, who was on duty in the building when the fire started at 1.45 am, is probably one of the last people who saw the museum exhibits. Around 6 pm yesterday, he took his usual round of the museum before locking it up, he told HuffPost India. Later that night, his shift was supposed to end at 11 pm, but one of the night security guards failed to show up. "I stayed back," he said. "And then, the fire broke out."
"There were giant flames everywhere. I cut myself on shattered glass at the initial moments, when there was a lot of confusion and all the fire tenders were yet showing up."
Singh, who has been working in the museum for the past five years, loved the rare collection of South Asian butterflies the most. Now, it is most likely gone, along with a life-sized dinosaur model, dinosaur fossils and eggs, and several stuffed animals—two rare (and now extinct) vultures, an Asiatic Lion, a tiger, a white tiger from the 1950s, a gigantic dolphin, a snow leopard, among others.
There were three galleries inside the museum—one of natural history, one of ecology, and one on conservation of the nation's flora and fauna.
Photograph of Winter Nature Camp at museum in December 2015. (Credit: Museum archives)
No one except firefighters and engineers have been as yet allowed inside, making it impossible to correctly quantify the loss that could have taken place in the fire. However, top fire officials say that everything that was inside is gone, burned to soot.