Heated to Ignition: The 1978 Suitland Film Vault Fire

Today’s post comes from Joseph Gillette, a processing archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Fire damage inside the Suitland nitrate film vault, 1978. (Records of the National Archives)

A date which will live in infamy . . .

On December 7, 1978, a fire occurred at the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) facility in Suitland, MD. It rushed through film vault A, destroying approximately 12.6 million feet of film. In the aftermath, Regional Administrator Walter Kallaur established an ad hoc committee to investigate the fire.

The committee first met two weeks later on December 21. It was chaired by William Hart of the Accident and Fire Prevention Branch. Dario Luna (Accident and Fire Prevention Branch), Thomas Goonan (Accident and Fire Prevention Division), and William Murphy (Audiovisual Archives Division) served as initial members, with others added later.

In addition to the examining the fire itself, the committee was tasked with reviewing “all major fire safety aspects of nitrate film storage and handling” at the Suitland location, whether or not directly related to the fire.

An abstract provides the basic facts:

Abstract of the report, 1978. (Records of the National Archives)

The monetary loss, in 1979 dollars, was estimated at $131,900. The fire destroyed approximately 12.6 million feet of Universal Newsreel motion picture film. The film consisted primarily of outtakes, unedited footage not used in final versions of films. NARS had accessioned the film due to its value in illustrating the history of the United States.

The film was highly flammable nitrocellulose. Nitrocellulose film was the principal type of motion picture film used by the film industry and the United States government from the 1890s to the early 1950s, at which time the National Archives began copying these images onto triacetate or polyester safety film. Over time, nitrate film decomposes, becoming increasingly susceptible to self-ignition in high temperatures. Likewise, the gases given off by decomposing film can be combustible, poisonous, or both.

Such knowledge poses a problem when determining the cause of the fire. The outside temperatures the day of the fire were in the mid-50s F, and internal temperature checks over preceding weeks consistently read in the mid-50s as well. The building’s air conditioning was operating the day of the fire, and an inspection a few months earlier showed no signs of advanced film deterioration.

So what happened?

Fire damage to the Suitland nitrate film vault (Building A, exterior), 1978. (Records of the National Archives)
Fire damage to the Suitland nitrate film vault (Building A, exterior), 1978. (Records of the National Archives)

Understanding and explaining the cause of the fire began with a look at Building A itself. Erected in the 1940s, the building was initially intended as a temporary storage facility for film, not to exceed three years. The building stood well clear of other structures. It was one story, measured 100 feet by 40 feet, and was constructed of concrete. The building was subdivided into numerous vaults and two work areas. Vaults were separated by eight-inch-thick concrete walls and accessed through steel doors. Each vault contained metal shelving.

To slow the film’s natural decomposition, a Freon cooling system was installed, with individual cooling units suspended from the roof of each vault. This system maintained temperatures in the vaults between 55 and 60 degrees F, “within the acceptable range for temporary storage of cellulose nitrate motion picture film.” 

Roof construction was engineered to reduce internal temperature increases due to sunlight. The building’s electrical system was up to code. Light bulbs were vapor-proof, and there were no electrical switches in the storage areas. Working with NARS, Universal Pictures designed and installed Building A’s fire protection system, which was completed in 1974.

A contract for upgrading the building’s air conditioning system began in 1978. However, work was halted by the contractor in September of that year.

Sprinkler System Layout, 1978. (Records of the National Archives)

The post-fire investigation revealed that the level of protection provided by the sprinkler system had been intentionally reduced. In the course of work, the air conditioning contractor had removed a length of branch line containing two sprinkler heads. Additionally, the sprinkler system was installed in a standard configuration, rather than the “high-speed deluge system” initially planned.

This configuration resulted in a greater degree of fire damage before a fire could be extinguished. Water volume and pressure tests showed the system to be adequate to extinguish a fire. However, computer simulations run post-fire concluded that, as a result of the removal of the branch line and sprinkler heads, water pressure was reduced, resulting in degraded water flow and a lack of water flowing from several sprinkler heads.

Irony

As a result of a similar fire that had occurred in 1977, work contracts were issued to install sprinklers, upgrade air-conditioning, and provide humidity controls in buildings A, B, and C at Suitland. The cooling system in vault A was deficient and was scheduled for replacement. During the work, it became necessary to lower the sprinkler lines to accommodate new equipment. This necessitated a temporary removal of two sprinkler heads. This removal was authorized “with the verbal consent of the PBS [Public Buildings Service] contract supervisor.” This, however, ran contrary to General Services Administration approved processes.

On the day of the fire, two workers from the Edward Kocharian Company arrived to install anchors in the vaults. Although the work contract stated no “hot” work was to be conducted within the vault, the contract employees proceeded to use electric tools in the space, including an “open armature electric drill”—a type of drill with exposed components carrying an electrical current—perhaps being unaware of the risk involved.

At no time during the work did any NARS employees enter the work area.

Around noon, while contractors and employees were eating lunch in the building’s office area, they heard what they described as a loud thump or whoosh:

Report: Narrative of Events, 1978. (Records of the National Archives)
Suitland nitrate film vault fire as seen from the parking lot, 1978. (Records of the National Archives)

When firefighters arrived, they opened several vault doors and knocked out several blowout panels to ventilate the building. An explosion then occurred, injuring several firefighters, causing further damage, and permitting the fire to spread. This “backdraft” explosion helped spread the fire into 21 of the building’s 27 vaults. Fearing further explosions, firefighters did not reenter the building until the fire had largely burned itself out. They then proceeded to put out remaining spot fires and cool the remains of the building.

The committee’s report states that the cause of the fire could not be definitively determined. However, the most probable cause was the ongoing construction work. The day of the fire was the first time during all construction activities that power tools had been used inside the building. Holes were drilled in the roofs of 10 vaults. After the last vault had been drilled, the workmen broke for lunch. It was during lunch that the fire was discovered.

Photograph of the remains of the drill, 1978. (Records of the National Archives)

The open armature drill appears to be the main culprit:

Other causes were considered unlikely. There was no evidence of smoking. Arson was discounted due to difficulty in surreptitiously accessing the building. Spontaneous combustion was considered unlikely because the environmental conditions weren’t conducive. There were no internal heat sources in the vaults and adjacent hallway.

The report’s final conclusion states that the fire was “most likely caused accidentally as a result of activities associated with upgrading the air-conditioning system.”

Lessons Learned

Despite the loss of so much unique film footage, NARS learned some valuable lessons from the tragedy. The report ends with a long list of recommendations to prevent such a fire from occurring again. These included the performance of fire-mitigating preventive maintenance, the review of all construction contracts by the Accident and Fire Prevention Branch, the acceleration of improvements to the Suitland facility, the removal of all film from vaults undergoing construction work, the acceleration of nitrate film conversion, and the installation of a deluge sprinkler system.

In the decades since putting these improved safeguards in place, the National Archives has continued to regularly reassessment risks and safety in order to protect its holdings and avert such a tragic loss in the future.

3 thoughts on “Heated to Ignition: The 1978 Suitland Film Vault Fire

  1. Only between 2010 and 2015, firefighters responded to more than 10 fires a day at buildings under construction in the U.S.

    And this taking into account the fact that modern carriers are now being used more instead of a very fire hazardous film.

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