The fire at the National Personnel Records Center was first sighted outside of 9700 Page Avenue, Saint Louis, on July 12, 1973. Minutes later, the first team arrived at the sixth floor of the building, only to be forced to retreat as their masks began to melt on their faces.
The chronology provided by the fire department for the GSA report tracks everything in military time, giving the hour, minute, and second logged. The Fire District’s record intertwines with the timelines reconstructed in later interviews of staff who were at work that night. Together, they provide a chronology of an ordinary day suddenly and irreversibly changed forever.
The following timeline is based on reports from the GSA investigation into the fire, including a chronology from the Community Fire Protection District.
Twenty-four National Archives evening shift workers in St. Louis are halfway through shift, which ends 12:30 a.m.
It’s a nice summer evening in St. Louis. Warren B. Griffith, Acting Director shows off the Military Personal Records Center (MPR) to his out-of-town guests.
Federal Protective Officer (FPO) makes usual rounds at south end of grounds. Nothing out of ordinary.
Man on motorcycle drives up to tell FPO officer building is on fire.
Desk Sergeant at MPR calls Community Fire District.
Custodial employee walks up stairwell to sixth floor, coming out in northwest office section. “I could see smoke coming out from the doors towards the elevator shaft that were open. I closed these doors. There was a draft pulling smoke from under these doors.” He returned down the same stairwell. “Smoke was coming toward the West and to the windows and smoke was a solid wall and was too thick.”
First two engines arrive, two more right behind.
First company arrives on sixth floor. Heat so intense masks collapse on their faces. Retreat to fifth floor. (Listen to a recording of the fire.)
Chief Zaiz calls for second and third alarms; 85- and 75-foot ladders coming.
Second attempt to enter sixth floor at east end fails.
Ladders up and water pumping. An MPR file clerk witnessing the scene described the scene: “They were shooting water right in the middle and the force of the water was spreading the fire out more than checking it.”
Creve Coeur asked to send Snorkel 289, sixth alarm.
Archivist of the United States James B. Rhoads called at home, told of unfolding disaster.
Wellston’s cascade system empty. Men on fifth floor calling for more men and masks.
Ambulance needed at west side of building for two men, also need inhalator.
All men pulled out, no line able to be worked on sixth floor.
All of sixth floor involved in fire.
Injured man en route to St. John’s.
Everyone down and out of building on the double.
Bring down masks and leave lines alone.
Request engine house get deluge gun ready for pick up.
Fireman sent to hospital. Smoke inhalation.
Olivette pumper available to feed deluge gun.
Ferguson snorkel last aerial in North County and should not be dispatched, try to get aerial from South County.
Chief requests water company raise pressure in area of fire.
Injured fireman, puncture wound to right knee to St. John’s Mercy.
7 pumpers, 7 ladders, 1 snorkel on scene. Other departments sending relief.
Chief requests more water pressure.
People have been gathering to watch the NPRC burn.
Request all off duty men to come to fire.
Request Salvation Army for food.
204 requests 201 to look at wall. Leaning out 6 to 8 inches.
203 advises not enough pressure to fight fire, Chief advises crew to back out.
Steak and Shake will provide food if Red Cross requests.
General Services Administration officials from Washington, DC, now in St. Louis.
Fire in east stairwell.
St. Charles Fire Department notified to have their firemen respond.
Request University City aerial ladder in place at fifth floor window to run hard lines.
Chief Underwood advises if fire not stopped, it will go to fifth floor.
Ninth alarm, Hazelwood en route.
Notify water company to raise pressure.
10: 44 p.m.
98 requested to make food pick up at Burger King.