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St. Louis Museum Catches Fire, But Firefighters Save Artifacts

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now for a short story with a bittersweet ending. Kerry Manderbach runs the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in St. Louis. It's part of a network of museums.

KERRY MANDERBACH: I used to say that we were the 13th museum in the system - lucky No. 13. You can take that any way you'd like.

SIMON: Tuesday night, he got a terrifying call. His museum was on fire.

MANDERBACH: I was in shock and devastated. When I got close to the area, I could see the plume of smoke rising. I instantly knew it wasn't going to be just a small fire.

SIMON: The museum's roof was devoured by flames, but Kerry Manderbach thought about what was inside - documents from the Cuban revolution, a yearbook from Fidel Castro's high school, a CIA dossier about him among other irreplaceable artifacts.

MANDERBACH: It was safe for the moment, so I asked if I could go in and get some of the collection. And they allowed me. And I ran in and unlocked the cases. They were all in cases, so they were undamaged by any water or smoke. I ran in and grabbed several, and then one of the firefighters inside basically told me to get out.

SIMON: Firefighters trooped out a few minutes later with their arms full.

MANDERBACH: They were carrying boxes of material out. They were carrying the model frigates out. They were carrying statues - one called "Madame Butterfly" and one called "Joan Of Arc."

SIMON: The four-alarm fire severely damaged the building. Its fate is unclear, but the Karpeles collection was saved. Tonight those firefighters will be inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame. One note - the only items reportedly damaged in the fire came from the St. Louis Media History Foundation - promotional mugs and T-shirts from local radio stations - horrors. If you want to help replace them, join your local public station right now, and tell them, send my mug to the Karpeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALABAMA SHAKES' "SOUND AND COLOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.