Moving Forward by Looking Back - Advances in Preservation and Safety since the 1973 Fire
INTRODUCTION - KEEP TUNED FOR THE 5 PART SERIES NEXT WEEK!
Friday, July 12 2013, marked the 40th anniversary of the fire at the National Personnel Records Center. Much has been written about this disaster – the sheer numbers of records lost, how many fire units responded to the fire, how long the fire burned, and to this day, the continued recovery of veteran’s records through the efforts of many devoted employees.
As devastating and memorable as the fire was, much has been learned from that seminal event. Testing of basic safety features for buildings was done, and from those results, national standards were developed. Shelving for and housing of records was examined and improved upon. NARA-wide directives were written to ensure all archival facilities and records centers within NARA were operating under the same rules and regulations. Preservation and conservation of paper records – still a relatively new field in 1973 – expanded on treatments of paper records, and new approaches to treatment and reformatting are being developed every day.
It’s human nature to revisit turning points in our lives – in this case, the 1973 fire. It’s also human nature to continue to survive, to move forward and to learn from history. The new building at 1 Archives Drive is a prime example of lessons learned from past mistakes, manifested in a physical form of forward progress.
Donna Judd spends each day carefully searching for valuable information for veterans in the documents left burned and brittle by the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
She looks for separation documents so that veterans can get benefits, and she sifts through damaged files to find information for medals.
“One record could take 5 minutes, another record could take 5 hours,” she says.
To read the full story of how Donna helps veterans claim their benefits even when the files have been damaged, go to today’s blog post: http://go.usa.gov/jrVA
On July 12, 1973, a fire was raging in the National Archives at St. Louis. It burned uncontrolled for more than 22 hours and was fought for 5 days.
Forty years later, we are still grateful for the work the firefighters did in fighting this massive fire.
The Military Personal Records Center was 1,596,332 square feet, second only to the Pentagon in size at the time.It had no sprinklers or firewalls.
Forty-two different fire departments from the surrounding area responded, providing 381 men on duty, 5747.5 on-duty hours, and uncounted additional volunteer and off-duty service. Several firemen would be taken to local hospitals, treated for smoke inhalation, broken bones, or puncture wounds.
For the full story and a timeline of the fire, go today’s Pieces of History blog post.
The images are from the National Archives at St. Louis, with a special thank you to Capt. Dave Dubowski of the Spanish Lake Fire Department and Chief Bob Palmer [ret.] of Mehlville Fire Department.
July 12, 1973 is a dark day in the history of the National Archives. A massive fire tore through the top floor of the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, destroying or damaging thousand of military personnel records.
Forty years ago this week, a devastating fire tore through the top of floor of the National Archives in St. Louis just after midnight. This photo shows the tremendous heat that warped shelves. The ashes on the shelves are the remains of cubic foot cartons of records.
At its peak, 42 fire districts were fighting the blaze. The fire burned uncontrolled for more than 22 hours.
About 73 to 80 percent of the approximately 22 million individual Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) stored in the building were destroyed. The records lost were those of former members of the Army, the Army Air Force, and the Air Force who served between 1912 and 1963.
The work of recovering veterans’ information and repairing their documents continues 40 years on. Two Records Reconstruction Teams handle about 2,300 fire-related reference requests each week.
To learn more about the fire and how it has affected the National Archives, our staff, and the veterans we serve, go to: http://go.usa.gov/jCka
If you, like Buster Keaton, have served in the military, your personnel file is held at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri. More than 34 million files are held in this new facility, filling 2.3 million cubic feet of records on 385,000 shelves. There are 6.2 billion feet of paper in the military records alone.
This picture shows the building under construction in 2011. The shelves that are being installed are 29 feet high.
About 600 full-time staff work in St. Louis. In 2011, the NPRC received 1,093,522 written requests for records, about 3,000 requests per day.
Read more about this incredible building and the work our NPRC staff do for veterans: http://go.usa.gov/YbeH
(Ed. note - corrected typo in Buster Keaton’s name)
Last week many of the technicians at the National Personnel Records Center got a break from their regular duties, because the Case Management Reporting System—the database we use to track cases—is being upgraded. So Preservation Programs staff members taught classes on the basics of preservation.
Core techs, searchers, archives techs, refilers, student interns, and others vacuumed records, humidified documents, made paper, and learned the basics of digital photo restoration. Some even found out how we deal with leaks and other water issues.
It was fun for us, and it’s nice to know that records center staff members are interested in what we do.