Today’s post comes from Sara Holmes, supervisory preservation specialist at the National Archives in St. Louis. (The images below are from the National Archives at St. Louis, with a special thank you to Capt. Dave Dubowski of the Spanish Lake Fire Department and the late Chief Bob Palmer of Mehlville Fire Department.)
What happened after midnight on July 12, 1973, changed everything for the National Archives in St. Louis.
The fire was first sighted outside of 9700 Page Avenue. 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 Military Personal Records Center (MPR)—now known as the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC)—was a huge building. Hailed as an architectural wonder when it was built in 1956, the building was 1,596,332 square feet, second only to the Pentagon in size at the time. Two NFL regulation football fields would fit comfortably within each of its six floors with room to spare. It had no sprinklers in the records storage areas and few firewalls in the building. Ultimately, it was a recipe for disaster.
Response to the fire was immediate. The North Central County Fire Alarm System logged the first alarm from the Olivette Fire Department at 0016:15 (15 seconds after 12:16 a.m), with a second call for alarm from a direct line at NPRC at 0016:35. At 0017:25, Community Fire Department pumpers 202, 205, 209, emergency medical truck 208, and ambulance 207 were dispatched.
From the first call logged until the 10-7 (out of service) on July 16, the Community Fire Protection District would log 104 hours and 33 minutes of dispatches, requests, and communications over the radio.
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.
Forty-two different fire departments from the surrounding area responded, providing 381 men on duty, 5,747.5 on-duty hours, and uncounted additional volunteer and off-duty service. The fire burned uncontrolled for more than 22 hours. Several firemen would be taken to local hospitals, treated for smoke inhalation, broken bones, or puncture wounds.
The Salvation Army and Red Cross offered assistance, and food was donated and brought on site for the firemen. The radio chatter tracks the movement of engines and special equipment, the need for air bottles, fuel, repeated requests for more water pressure, and requests for relief men to come replace the weary.
Without their dedicated service, our loss would have been far greater. Forty years later, we are still thankful to the Fire Departments that came to our aid.
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 MRC 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.
Request 100-foot ladder from St. Louis City.
Shut down line to sixth floor, put deluge gun in use.
Need batteries on hand lights and walkie-talkie running low.
Break down deluge gun, roll up lines and move it inside of building.
Request Kirkwood aerial break down and bring in 2 ½ foot line; roof falling in.
Fireman with first-degree burns to Normandy hospital.
Advised leave 205 in Quarters and let the men rest.
Have fresh men, will send them up.
Hazelwood asking if a crew was needed, was told yes.
MPR is asking anyone who has found fragments of pages blown away by the fire into the surrounding area to please return them to 9700 Page Avene. Fragments can be brought to the main gate or mailed. Please return any fragments and pages, these records are important for Veterans.
Front drive shaft, clutch bearings, and gears are shot on 243. 243 has pumped 40 straight hours. They will be out of service until further notice.
98 advises 201 there are a couple of Federal men wanting to set up transits to check on expansion and contractions of the building.
202 located fire in large walk-in safe on sixth floor. Request safe open to extinguish fire.
Called Red Cross for coffee and donuts.
Central County calling to see if volunteers needed. Affirmative.
Fireman injured, request stretcher, lifeline, and ladder north side of cafeteria.
203 to 200: We are starting to get quite a bit of smoke on the southwest corner of the building again.
200: You will have to get it with the Ladder, we can’t get over there.
200: Why don’t you get our ladder and work it over there.
203: I think there is a line close to that area.
200: We can’t put anyone across the roof where it is caved in.
They want a life line on the roof to bring down a deluge gun.
University City to N.C. Do you need any more workers at the Records Center? 215 advises Negative.
Number 3 Company will be the only Company in service. 204 and 205 will be out of service at the Record Center.
10-7 at the Record Center. Out of service.
Although the fire was officially declared “out,” firemen would remain on site for the next several weeks. Water stood on every floor of the building. Records could be seen among the debris of the collapsed roof. But the problems and implications of the scale and damage to the building and the records were still settling in. But now that the sixth floor was cooling down, decisions on how to recover the records could begin.
To learn more about how the NPRC processes veterans’ requests for military personnel records, watch this video.
To read a personal account of working on veterans’ records, read “It’s why I do what I do.”
To learn more about the St. Louis fire, read “Burnt in Memory,” by Marta G. O’Neill and William Seibert, from the Spring 2013 issue of Prologue.