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.
After 5 days, the 1973 fire at the St. Louis National Personnel Records Center was declared out. But records stored in filing cabinets posed a special hazard—-fires in cabinets were still being put out for over three weeks. Each time a drawer was opened, exposure to oxygen caused immediate combustion.
When the center had been built in 1956, records had been expected to be kept in filing cabinets. Record capacity became problematic, and most records had been moved to boxes and shelving by 1973.
However, despite the massive damage caused by the fire and the water used to put it out, millions of veterans’ records were salvageable.
The race to save these documents from mold and water damage was on.
Read the full post on Pieces of History.
Image: National Archives, Record Group 64.
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
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.
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.
A few minutes past midnight on July 12, 1973, a fire broke out at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in the suburbs of St. Louis. At risk was an untold amount of information about Americans who had served in the armed forces in the 20th century
Bad fortune struck minutes past midnight on the night of July 12, 1973, when a fire alarm sounded at the North Central County Fire Alarm System. The time was 12:16:15 a.m.
By the time the fire reached its peak, 42 fire districts were fighting it. The fire burned uncontrolled for more than 22 hours. Four days later, on the morning of July 16, fire department officials declared the fire out, but it was several more days before all hot spots were extinguished.
via Prologue: Burnt in memory: Looking back at the 1973 St. Louis fire
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