Fifty years ago, a fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO, destroyed millions of military personnel records. Visit the National Archives website for more information about the fire and its aftermath. Today’s post from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center, was originally published in 2021 and has been updated.
The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) has an important role in the National Archives. Every day, technicians answer thousands of requests from veterans asking for crucial documentation. Without a proper facility for accessioning, preserving, and providing access to Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs), veterans would have immense difficulties in acquiring their information. Veterans need items like their Notice of Separation (DD 214), Chronological Statement of Retirement Points (DA 5016), Enlistment Document (DD 4), and others to apply for Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare, employment, and other private benefits.
Ask any NARA employee, researcher, or archivist, and they can tell you about the 1973 fire. Between 16 and 18 million individual OMPFs of Army and Air Force personnel serving from 1912 to1963 were lost, and just over 6.5 million files were recovered in varying conditions of damage. Today, we’re looking at how we recovered and restructured after the fire, and our more to our current location in Spanish Lake, MO.
So what happened immediately after the fire? Reference work on military records still occurred at 9700 Page Avenue, only without the sixth floor, where the fire broke out. The General Services Administration (GSA) removed the floor and retrofitted a large storage bay on the first floor to isolate the water-damaged and moldy OMPFs recovered from the fire in air-conditioned space. (The remaining records storage areas were not air conditioned.) The NPRC created a consolidated registry of these records, which we now know as the “B-Files” (burned files).
The old building was not built as an archives—there was no fire-suppression system, no particulate filtration, and no defined storage bays/fire breaks. A large tent city operation in the parking lot had Archives staff sifting through the damaged records trying to piece together whatever they could find. The building was repaired by December 1973, but upgrades were needed if the NPRC was to continue to serve as guardian of the nation’s military records.
The fire was a catalyst for an important discussion within the National Archives: should military records have permanent status? Federal records have a lifecycle and can be disposed of in accordance with what is called a records schedule. There are two general classifications of records: temporary and permanent. Historically, temporary records compose around 97 percent of all federal records created. The remaining 3 percent are permanent (or archival) records, which are kept forever because they possess significant historical value and use beyond the original reason for their creation.
Military records were originally 75-year temporary records, but many argued that they provided valuable historical and genealogical information worthy of permanent retention. Archiving the OPMFs would transfer legal ownership from the respective service departments to NARA, based on a records schedule.
In the mid-1990s, the Archivist of the United States directed the establishment of an appraisal team to review the OMPF for permanency. This team completed a very thorough review and recommended permanent status for the OMPF. On July 8, 2004, Archivist John Carlin, together with the Defense Department, signed the SF 115 schedule, establishing the OMPF as a permanent record of the United States.
Military records now had permanent holding status, and a facility was needed to fit the requirements for proper storage. The old building at 9700 Page needed a number of costly improvements, such as structural repairs, removal of windows in storage areas, air conditioning, particulate filtration, removal of pipes from stack areas, better fire suppression, and records security/access improvements. These costs were deemed too high, especially given the 1950s construction of the facility and use of asbestos insulation around pipes, in flooring, and other areas.
NARA decided in the early 2000s to construct a new facility. St. Louis remained the chosen location given its geographic centrality and recommendations from the GSA. The new building would fulfill not only the storage and safety requirements but also increase public access with research rooms, meeting space, and improved work layouts and adjacencies not found in 9700 Page.
Ground was broken at 1 Archives Drive on November 16, 2009, and crews went to work. Construction took about 18 months, and on May 1, 2011, NPRC staff began to occupy the building. The mammoth task of moving millions of cubic feet of records still lay ahead, though. Throughout the construction and move, requests still came in and were answered on a timely basis. The Center developed a system for retrieving records while being relocated to ensure records could be easily found if requested.
During the move and subsequent removal of shelving from 9700 Page, some records were found that had been misplaced or fallen behind shelves. The move team averaged more than 7,000 cubic feet of records moved each day for 383 work days. No records were lost or damaged in the process. Additionally, when moving the office areas and staff to Archives Drive, the movers used 48 semi truck trailers and accomplished the feat over five weekends so as to not disrupt normal work for the staff. The move was finally completed on November 7, 2012.
A new and improved NPRC building came with all the appropriate layout and safety specifications for long-term storage of permanent holdings. Storage bays were built as independent rooms with fireproof walls and doors to isolate any fires. A fire-suppression system and heat/smoke detectors were installed in each aisle following the latest Fire Code standards. Under Title 36 Code of Federal Regulations, Section 1234, Subpart K, which applies to all federal records facilities, fire tests are required to determine the level of acceptable damage to records. If more than 300 records per 250,000 are damaged or destroyed as a result of fire, then the storage parameters need to be revised. The fire test for the 29-High storage system in use at Archives Drive passed the live fire test with flying colors, only sustaining 126 cubic feet of records damaged or destroyed in the test fire, conducted at a UL Laboratory. The facility was also built to withstand seismic activity given its proximity to the New Madrid Fault Line.
This move was an immense undertaking for the NPRC staff. Given the significance of the records being safeguarded, the move and new facility took on a level of importance that many appreciated as they worked tirelessly to complete the project. Following its completion, the NPRC at Archives Drive was 475,000 square feet, stored 2.3 million cubic feet of permanent and archival records, and totaled approximately $120 million in construction and infrastructure costs.
In addition to reference work on military records, the NPRC houses the National Archives at St. Louis office, VA offices, and liaisons from each service department. NPRC staff work tirelessly to safeguard military records and ensure that veterans and their families get the information they need. Technicians working with burnt records use a variety of auxiliary records to reconstruct a service summary for those veterans. Morning reports, pay vouchers, award cards, and other indexes provide critical information for affected veterans.
A 50-year-old fire can stop the work of the National Archives. It only proves that we can come out bigger and better than before.
For the 50th anniversary of the fire, the National Archives gathered oral history interviews with staff and former staff with special insight into the fire and its aftermath. Special thanks to Bryan McGraw who provide input for this post. His oral history is also available online.