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Museum Of Chinese In America Gets Good News About Artifacts Feared Destroyed In Fire

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now an update on a story we brought you earlier this week - it was about a fire in a building housing the Museum of Chinese in America. Almost the entire permanent collection was thought to be destroyed. Museum president Nancy Yao Maasbach told our co-host Ari Shapiro about the value of the museum's artifacts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NANCY YAO MAASBACH: It is from our collections that we tell the stories that we place on view at the museum. So right now, we're spending every energy and really every last dollar on trying to preserve the collections once we see it, once we can get our hands on it because without it, some might suggest that we're hollowed out.

CHANG: In fact, though, the museum is not hollowed out. Yesterday, New York City officials began pulling out boxes and artifacts for the first time. And many of the items thought to be burned seem to be salvageable. Shumita Basu from member station WNYC reports.

SHUMITA BASU, BYLINE: The tenants at 70 Mulberry Street, which includes a senior center, a dance studio and, of course, the museum, have been holding their breath since last week, waiting to see just how much the fire claimed. Nancy Yao Maasbach was there as the first boxes emerged from the building, many intact.

YAO MAASBACH: I am so - I mean, I'm so relieved.

BASU: In the aftermath of a fire, there's usually two kinds of damage to assess - fire damage, of course, but also water damage. Maasbach says many of the museum's boxes were wet, some items inside were damp, but all can be salvaged.

YAO MAASBACH: There were textiles that we found that I was shocked - a beautiful traditional dress that was turn of the century. I, you know, was speechless.

BASU: The museum also stores documents of family histories. Maasbach says in the last few days, she's received calls from some of those families.

YAO MAASBACH: And to be honest, sometimes, I didn't pick up because I couldn't really have that conversation. And I was hoping for the best. And I saw some of their file boxes. So one family, I saw one of three, and then two of three. And then I was like, this is amazing.

BASU: From the outside, the building itself looks remarkably intact, save for the empty window frames and char marks along the upper floor. If you stand on the street, you can look through the top floor windows straight up to the clear, blue sky - no roof. So how do you start pulling objects out of a fire-ravaged building? It takes a lot of coordination between city workers and emergency responders strung across each floor. City Records Commissioner Pauline Toole explained it works a bit like an assembly line.

PAULINE TOOLE: Boxes have to be given from one to another to another down two flights of stairs. Then on the ground level, staff from MOCA are there, and they triage the items.

BASU: The first object to be pulled from the building was a live rare Chinese orchid. It belongs to H.T. Chen, the founder of the Chen Dance Center on the building's second floor, who jumped when he saw the plant.

HT CHEN: Yes. I don't believe.

BASU: He said he's sure it's a symbol.

For NPR News, I'm Shumita Basu in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANNAH PEEL'S "ARCHID ORANGE DWARF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.