RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - A large fire swept through Rio de Janeiro's Carnival center Monday, destroying thousands of costumes and floats and throwing preparations for Brazil's annual festival of hedonism into chaos.
Television images showed thick plumes of smoke rising over central Rio early in the morning from a blackened section of the City of Samba complex, where the city's best Carnival groups spend months preparing their spectacular annual parades.
At least three of the 12 top samba groups, or "schools," were hit badly by the fire, media said, just weeks before their scheduled parades through Rio's Sambadrome for Carnival, which gets under way on March 4.
Workers were shown entering the complex trying to salvage some of the elaborate floats as 80 firefighters battled the blaze, which had been brought under control by mid-morning. It was unclear how the fire started.
A tearful Helinho de Oliveira, the president of the Grande Rio samba school, said the fire destroyed more than 3,000 costumes that his group had spent months making.
"The only thing that didn't burn was our desire to parade," he told Globo television.
Some workers arrived at the center only to break down in tears when they saw their months of passionate work destroyed. No one was reported killed in the fire, which started early on Monday morning, although at least one person was treated for smoke inhalation.
The costumes and floats used in the Carnival parades are made from highly flammable materials such as foam and paper. The sprawling City of Samba complex was completed in 2005 at a cost of millions of dollars partly aimed at avoiding the fires that had hit Carnival preparations in the past.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes held an emergency meeting with Carnival officials and said he was confident that all of the top samba schools would parade, although those badly hit by the fire might not be ready to compete for the annual prizes.
"Unfortunately it's going to be difficult to restore the work of a whole year in 30 days," Paes said outside the smoldering buildings. "But these schools have the hallmark of Rio Carnival -- lots of passion and lots of people involved. Carnival will go on."
As well as a spectacular party that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to beachside Rio, the Carnival parades are a deadly serious competition for bragging rights among mostly poor communities.
"Carnival is over for the schools that burned," said Jorge Marques, a resident of a slum overlooking the burning City of Samba.
Additional reporting by Sergio Queiroz; Editing by Doina Chiacu