Seamstresses, set designers and musicians watched in tears as firefighters struggled to control a blaze that raged through warehouses holding many of the elaborate costumes and floats they had assembled for this year's samba parade.
With just a month left before the March 6 start of the competition, there is no way to fully replace them.
"Do you know what it feels like to work all day, into the night, to make this happen, and then this?" asked Graziela Goncalves Carvalho, a seamstress with Uniao da Ilha do Governador, one of the groups that appeared to have suffered heavy losses. "It's over. There's nothing. This Carnival is over for us."
Three hours after the fire, 120 firefighters had controlled the flames that appeared to have severely damaged warehouses belonging to three of the samba organizations that compete in the two-day parade, as well as Independent League of Samba Groups that organizes the event, according to Dimas de Almeida Neto, spokesman for Rio's fire department.
The cause was being investigated, he said.
There were no initial reports of serious injuries or deaths, although some workers were in the warehouses when the fire started just before 7 a.m. The municipal health department confirmed one 30-year-old man was admitted to a downtown hospital after inhaling smoke, but is recovering.
Even before the flames were out, it was clear that four of the four-story warehouses were extensively damaged, with two of them collapsing internally, according to firefighters. Ten warehouses were not affected by the flames.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes, who plays in one samba group's percussion section, promised the city would help the groups recover and vowed that the Carnival parades would go on.
"These people will put on a great Carnival, and will show the energy and the optimism that Rio has," he said.
Paes has no control over the independent samba competition, but he said he hoped that groups hit by the fire would not risk being demoted. Under a football-style league system, low-scoring samba groups can be dropped into a lesser league for the coming year.
Even with help, rebuilding an entire year's worth of work is not possible in a month, he said.
"They won't be in any condition to compete," Paes said.
Still, many were already trying to bounce back.
"I've cried a lot over this, and now it's time to think about what can be saved," said Roberto Szaniecki, the theme developer for Portela group as he hugged friends. "But I want to make this clear: we're going to get out there. We've got a Carnival to put on."
The most heavily affected group appeared to be Grande Rio. It apparently lost the entire contents of its parade: eight complicated floats and 3,000 elaborately embroidered costumes, said their spokesman, Avelino Ribeiro.
This year's show was a $5.5 million investment, he said. About 7,000 people worked for about eight months to pull it all together, and the parade was ready to go, he said.
Grande Rio also lost much of its infrastructure: workshop machinery, the metal structure of the floats and computers. But the group will make an appearance, in spite of the blow, he said.
"There are a lot of people who spend the year dreaming and working for this, for their moment to go out there and shine," he said. "You can't take that away from them. The material things are gone, but we still have a samba to sing."