This blog post is condensed from the article “Burnt in Memory,” by Marta G. O’Neill and William Seibert, from the Spring 2013 issue of Prologue.
By the time it was daylight on July 12, 1973, at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, one thing was painfully clear: the loss of records to fire and water was staggering.
The fire had swept through the top floor of the building just after midnight. At its peak, 42 fire districts were fighting it. 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.
Up on the sixth floor, reinforced concrete columns had sheared off, causing the roof to collapse. Metal shelving and metal filing cabinets were bent and twisted by the fire’s heat. Bricks of ash remained where cubic foot boxes of records once sat. Aisles between shelving rows were filled with debris up to three feet deep, and several inches of water covered the floor.
Fire officials did not declare the fire to be out until July 16. There were no sprinklers or smoke detectors in the 1950-era building. The General Services Administration, which owned the building, was in the process of awarding a contract for them at the time of the fire.
The damaged records—wet, burned, and mangled—were removed from the sixth floor by backhoe and by human chain. Staff worked in a “tent city” erected on the grounds to sort and rehouse recovered records. At first, records were placed in dry cardboard boxes, but plastic milk crates eventually were discovered to be the most effective means to hold and dry damaged records. Officials faced a monumental drying task as the volume of wet records to be dried amounted to nearly 90,000 cubic feet.
Staff at the St. Louis facility still live with the impact of the fire even though most of today’s NPRC staff didn’t work there in 1973. (The NPRC left the building on Page Avenue in central St. Louis County in 2012 and moved into a new facility.)
Since the disaster 40 years ago this summer, National Archives staff have worked on requests to reconstruct a basic service record for veterans whose original file was destroyed or damaged in the fire. Today, the job rests with two Records Reconstruction Teams, which handle about 2,300 fire-related reference requests each week.
Since remnants of the records salvaged from the fire can carry mold, staff use special equipment in handling them and carefully clean them. Because there is no single way to treat all documents, staff use a variety of preservation techniques. And some documents are so severely damaged that they are withdrawn from access entirely.
In reconstructing files for veterans, the staff also turns to records of other agencies for information, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Selective Service System, Army and Air Force Casualty Branches, and more.
Why is this work important?
Veterans are entitled to certain benefits based on their service in the armed forces. But to collect those benefits—health services, home loans, and educational loans—they need to provide documentation of their military service. The DD Form 214, Report of Separation from Active Duty, is the document that they need, but over the years, they may have lost or misplaced it. NPRC can help, by either pulling the form from the veteran’s OMPF or, if the file was destroyed, reconstructing the service history using information found in other records created by other government agencies.
(To request information from your military file in St. Louis, go to www.archives.gov/veterans/)
Forty years later, the archival field is much better equipped to design storage that withstands the spread of fire, to detect and extinguish the earliest signs of smoke through sensors and sprinkler systems, and to segregate records in smaller storage areas that prevent massive fire spread and loss of records. Progress has been made in many areas.
A disaster is a painful way to learn new and better ways of preserving records, but we remember the words carved in stone outside the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.: “Study the Past.” Only by understanding the past can we move boldly to protect our nation’s records for the future.
Read the full story of loss, change, and ongoing reconstruction in the article “Burnt in Memory,” by Marta G. O’Neill and William Seibert from the Spring 2013 issue of Prologue magazine.