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massive orange glow lit up the night sky just after midnight on July 12, 1973,
as a devastating fire engulfed the National Personnel Records Center in St.
just 4 minutes and 20 seconds after the alarm sounded for firefighters to
arrive on scene.
no one was injured in the horrific fire, it was already too late for millions
of official military personnel files. The National Archives estimates that 16
million to 18 million files were destroyed in the blaze, including 75 percent
of all Air Force records for personnel discharged between Sept. 25, 1947, and
Jan. 1, 1964.
percent of Army records for personnel discharged between Nov. 1, 1912, and Jan.
1, 1960 also were destroyed.
number of files lost is not known because duplicate copies were never
maintained and no indexes existed. In addition, millions of documents had been
lent to the Department of Veterans Affairs before the fire, making it even more
difficult to tally the loss, states the National Archives website.
burned “out of control” for 22 hours. Firefighters were able to make it up to
the sixth floor, where most of the damage occurred, but blazing heat and
extensive smoke forced them to withdraw by 3:15 a.m.
next two days, firefighters had no other choice but to battle the blaze from
the outside, using fire hoses to drench the exterior of the building and
pouring millions of gallons of water through broken windows to combat the fire
still raging inside.
the long ordeal, firefighters faced severe problems due to insufficient water
pressure. Exacerbating the situation, one of the department’s pumper trucks
broke down after 40 hours of continuous operations,” states the website.
after two days, crews were able to re-enter the building. Still, the fire
continued to smolder until July 16. The blaze was so intense local residents
were told to stay inside “due to the heavy acrid smoke.”
A total of
42 fire districts worked to put out the fire, but the damage was so extensive
investigators never were able to determine what started it. Staff members
worked to recover vital records even as the building burned, including more
than 100,000 reels of morning reports for the Air Force and Army. Such records
later played a critical role in reconstructing the basic service information
for requestors, states the website.Fire and FloodOn July
23—just 10 days after the fire began—employees who previously were on
administrative leave returned to work to assist in recovery efforts.
removal and salvage of water and fire damaged records from the building was the
most important priority, and such efforts were overseen by a specially
appointed project manager,” states the site. “Their work led to the recovery of
approximately 6.5 million burned and water-damaged records.”
the fire was declared officially out after four and a half days, crews
continued to spray the wreckage until late July in an effort to stop sporadic
rekindling of the fire. The sixth floor was completely destroyed by the fire,
but the fifth floor took the brunt of the water damage.
addition, broken water lines continued to flood the building until they could be
capped,” states the website.
shipped water-damaged records in plastic milk crates to a temporary facility at
the civilian records center on Winnebago. There, “hastily constructed drying
racks had been assembled from spare shelving.”
Louis-based McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corp. also offered up three vacuum drying
facilities as a means of drying water logged records. “The vacuum dry process
took place in a chamber that had previously been utilized to simulate
temperature and pressure conditions for the Mercury and Gemini space missions,”
states the NPRC site. “The chamber was large enough to accommodate
approximately 2,000 plastic milk cartons of water and fire damaged records.”
records were safely inside, McDonnell Douglas technicians lowered the air in
the chamber to freezing and then filled the room with hot dry air, “which
squeezed out the water molecules.” The equivalent of nearly eight tons of water
was extracted during each session—roughly eight pounds of water per container.
In addition, an Ohio-based NASA facility also helped dry records.
because the experimental vacuum drying process had never been used for records
disaster recovery, many of the files were “over-dried, resulting in a higher
rate of brittle paper.”
months following the fire, the NPRC established a new branch tasked with
dealing with damaged records and reconstructing records for those requesting
service information. The NPRC also established a “B” registry file—or burned
file—to index the 6.5 million records recovered from the charred remains of the
the inevitable mold was the next major challenge. St. Louis summers are hot and
humid, and paper is especially susceptible to mold. Damaged records were placed
in a temperature controlled storage area in an effort to prevent further mold
growth. Today, most evidence of mold is dormant, but records still must be
carefully handled because increased exposure to heat and humidity can cause
mold to become active again.
of loss to the cultural heritage of our nation, the 1973 NPRC fire was an
unparalleled disaster. In the aftermath of the blaze, recovery and
reconstruction effort took place at an unprecedented level,” states the NPRC
site. “Thanks to such recovery efforts and the use of alternate sources to
reconstruct files, today’s NPRC is able to continue its primary mission of
serving our country’s military and civil servants.”
file is still utilized today. In fact, as part of the NPRC preservation
program, technicians continue to review, assess, and treat burned records.
NPRC opened a brand new $115 million building in North County, Mo., where the
archives are now stored. Even today archivists painstakingly work to repair
what was lost, using new technology not yet available in 1973 to aid in the
process. One archivist told St. Louis Today the process of piecing together,
disinfecting, and preserving the documents can really only be compared to
triage.Personal Histories Lost ForeverHowever,
the fire is still taking its toll on military families, as the lost records
were quite literally one of a kind and irreplaceable. It has sadly become
common for military retirees and their family members to run into a dead end
when attempting to research or access service records.
one example among thousands, Debra Griffith learned first-hand the impact the
fire can still have as she tried to access her dying father’s records last
year, reported St. Louis Today. Army Cpl. Lewis Lower was a Korean War veteran
and he wanted to be buried in a military cemetery, but Griffith couldn’t track
down his files.
Griffith was originally told her father’s records may have been among the
millions destroyed in the fire, she received a charred facsimile just 10 days
after contacting the NPRC with the information she needed. Lower was buried
with full military honors in February 2012.
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