National Personnel Records Center Fire Series: The Fire

July 12, 2023, marks 50 years since the disastrous 1973 fire at the Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis that destroyed millions of military personnel records. To commemorate the occasion, we are featuring a three-part series on the fire and its aftermath. This post comes to you from Jen Hivick, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC). 

On July 12, 1973, shortly after midnight, fire was reported at the NPRC’s military personnel records building at 9700 Page Boulevard in St. Louis, MO. When a Federal Protective Services employee went to verify this, they saw plumes of smoke emerging from the sixth-story windows and immediately notified the fire department. Within minutes, fire trucks had arrived on the scene. 

Firemen made an attempt to enter the sixth floor within the first hour of the fire, but then—and several subsequent times—the heat was too intense, and the officer in charge felt it was too dangerous to continue. Instead, they focused on fighting the blaze from the outside, fixing hoses on the flames and calling for back-up from other fire departments nearby. Their job was made even harder later in the day on July 12 when the roof partially collapsed. 

Over the course of the following 24 hours, 42 different fire departments worked to fight the fire; it took 350 firefighters to finally put it out. They came from St. Louis and the surrounding counties, from both Missouri and Illinois. It wasn’t until July 16 that the fire was finally extinguished. 

While firefighters were focused on the fire itself, experts from across the government met to try to save as many documents as possible. By the evening of July 12, while the fire was still raging, experts from the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Public Services Building congregated on the site. Although they were unable to determine the full extent of the damage at the time, they started to plan for varying scenarios, ranging from a partial to complete loss of records. 

They were unfortunately well aware that the storage conditions at the Military Personnel Records Center were not ideal. Although best archival practices at the time involved storing records in metal cabinets, the sheer amount of records that the facility held—over 55 million records at the time of the fire—meant that this was not always feasible. Most of the records on the sixth floor were stored in cardboard boxes, and as such were easily flammable. In 1972 the General Services Administration pinpointed this as one of the biggest fire risks for the National Personnel Records Center and was in the process of improving storage, but the fire occurred before they had a chance to remedy the problem.

The center received thousands of requests every week from veterans asking for documents such as their DD-214s and Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs). One of the first decisions made on July 12 was to hold mail being sent to the center. Likewise, other government agencies were asked to hold off on sending any newly retired records for the time being. 

Because the fire was concentrated on the south side of the building, people were still able to briefly enter the facility. Because staff knew that the fire most affected the sixth floor, where Army and Air Force records were held, they made it a priority to retrieve boxes of microfilm that held morning reports for the two branches. These reels helped staff reconstruct records that were lost in the fire and are still heavily used to this day.

When the fire was finally put out and control of the building was returned to the government, the first priority was saving the records that could be salvaged. Staff expected that the records on the sixth floor would be completely destroyed, but other records were still at risk. In putting out the fire, the remaining records were soaked, and mold remediation became one of the biggest concerns. Staff knew that if they did not dry the records as quickly as possible, they could lose the rest of the records at the facility, even the ones that had not been burned. 

When staff were allowed onto the sixth floor, they were pleasantly surprised to discover that some of the records on the floor had survived, although they too were heavily water-logged and often in pieces. The records were removed from the wreckage and brought outside to the parking lot, where tents were set up. Employees went to work trying to sort through the records, piecing together what they could. 

Ultimately, over 80 percent of the Army personnel records from 1912 to 1960 were lost, as were roughly half of the Air Force records (predominantly for veterans whose last names came alphabetically after “Hubbard”). This loss has affected millions of people across the country and is still something that staff at NPRC deal with every day.

Stay tuned for the third and final post in the series about the 1973 National Archives fire, which looks at the aftermath of the fire and the hard work that has done since to reconstruct lost records.

5 thoughts on “National Personnel Records Center Fire Series: The Fire

  1. Initially, the smoke was coming out of the south side of the 5th floor (not the 6th floor) because the big exhaust fans that lined the south side of the building were on, on the fifth floor, and they were not on, on the 6th floor. Also, one other small error, the fire was concentrated near the center of the 6th floor back behind the secure vault off the main hallway that ran the width of the building.

    1. If you find out I need to know. I was hoping to get information from the discharge facility in Ft. Bliss Texas from 1945. All I seem to get was everything was lost in the fire. But surely Fort Bliss would have military records of men discharged-not just the discharge? I already have the discharge sheet. It’s all I have from my dad’s service. We are at a loss to follow his service overseas-except we know he was in India as anti-aircraft support.

    2. Oh I’m sorry I just saw you HAVE documents to reconstruct! If you can direct me to find anything-would be appreciated. The National Archives contact hasn’t been any help.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *