Today’s post comes from Sara Holmes, supervisory preservation specialist at the National Archives in St. Louis.
Just before 9 a.m. on the morning of July 16, 1973, the fire that had raged over five days was declared out. The firemen’s command post was taken down; engines cleared the scene; and 9700 Page Avenue—home of the Military Personal Records Center (MPR)—was returned to Federal control. Recovery work began, and consultants from the private and public sectors were called to St. Louis under the oversight of the General Services Administration.
Many problems were obvious from the start: there was no electricity; broken water lines continued to flood the building; staff had been placed on leave and needed a place to return to work; records requests still needed to be answered; the sixth floor appeared to be little more than rubble and ashes; and the millions of records in the lower floors of the building were still at risk for damage. It would take an additional week for staff to return to work in makeshift quarters and a contract to be awarded to demolish the sixth floor.
With water still pooling on every floor, concerns grew that the records on the lower floors would soon bloom with mold in the hot St. Louis summer. A thymol solution was sprayed throughout the building as a preventative fungicide. (Although thymol was once commonly used in book and paper conservation for treating mold-damaged objects, it is now considered to be a carcinogen, and its use is no longer recommended.)
The first assessment estimated that only 10% of the 22 million records on the sixth floor were salvageable. Another 450,000 records on lower floors were wet. Most of the damage was on the fifth floor, where water had soaked the lower shelves of Coast Guard records. Stray records were found throughout the center, where they had been carried anywhere that the cascading water was able to drain.
But as demolition of the sixth floor began, staff realized that there were far more salvageable records than they had thought possible.
Far more. In fact, millions more.
No one had ever undertaken a record-drying recovery like this before. Milk crates were used to pack as much of the waterlogged records as possible. “Hog pens” were later set up in the parking lot to contain larger amounts of records, and a tent city was erected, surrounding the building as National Archives staff prepared records to be transported for drying.
Assistance was needed in St. Louis to salvage these records, and the National Archives turned to Peter Waters.
Waters was Conservation Officer and Chief of the Conservation Division at the Library of Congress. In 1966, he had led a team to save books belonging to the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Firenze damaged by the flooding of the Arno River in Florence, Italy. The English-born bookbinder and conservator was the perfect man to advise and assist.
Waters came St. Louis to oversee the salvage of wet and burned records. Waters first set up environmental monitoring checks on all floors to track temperature and relative humidity levels. He then observed the efforts in restoring the building and its records.
Various options and possibilities for drying the ever-increasing amount of salvageable records were considered until someone mentioned the space systems center nearby at the McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft Corporation. A chamber, built to simulate conditions in outer space during testing for the Apollo space program, could vacuum-dry materials. Waters conducted a quick test using phone books that proved successful, and then he moved on to planning how to use the chamber to dry the records still being removed from the sixth floor of the fire-damaged building.
The chamber had a capacity of over 2,000 feet and could accommodate 2,500 of the milk crate containers that held the salvaged records. Not to be confused with freeze-drying, the vacuum-drying chamber used a purged air system. Inside the chamber, the records were packed about three-quarters of the way to the ceiling to allow for air space, then exposed to a vacuum pressure of 45 mm of mercury for about an hour and a half.
After that cycle, the chamber was purged with dry air (heated and with less than 1% relative humidity) for about two and a half hours. The vacuum and dry heat cycles were continued over five days. As much as 8 tons of water was removed from each chamber over the treatment cycle.
Waters remained in touch after he left St. Louis. Additional vacuum-drying chambers were later located at a NASA facility in Ohio, allowing more records to receive vacuum-drying treatment. The vacuum-drying was not only economical, estimated at just a penny per record, but also removed the odor of smoke from the records.
It took months to dry all of the records salvaged from the sixth floor. Staff identified and sorted the records into a new registry, known as the “B-files,” and maintained these burned files separately from other records.
Reference staff continued to use the records if they were able to locate and read information within the damaged files. Finally, in 2000, a Preservation Lab was established in St. Louis to safely remediate mold and treat the damaged and distorted files.
Today, B-files that are requested by veterans or their families go through a treatment process tailored to the individual needs of each record. Records are surface cleaned, mold remediated, humidified and flattened, and mended when necessary. The work is slow, but rewarding. The Preservation Lab can usually complete treatment on requested records within five days, although some individual records—especially those that were heavily fragmented—take longer to piece and mend to fully recover the text of what remains.
For more information on Peter Waters’s experience in St. Louis, see Mass Treatment After a Disaster, a paper presented by Waters and published in Conservation Administration. The 1973 Seminar on the Conservation of Library and Archival Materials and the Establishment of Conservation Programs. Oct. 1-5, 1973. Published by the New England Conservation Center.
To learn more about how the NPRC processes veterans’ requests for military personnel records, watch this video.
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.