National Personnel Records Center Fire Series: The Aftermath

This post, the final in a series of three looking at the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire and its aftermath, comes from Jen Hivick, an archives technician at the NPRC in St. Louis, Missouri.

In the year following the disastrous fire at the Military Personnel Records Center, employees struggled to find a new normal. There were constant physical reminders of the fire. Although staff were allowed back in the facility within two months, the building they came back to was dramatically different. The sixth floor had been demolished and a new roof placed on the building, but the loss of an entire floor meant that there was less storage and office space than before. Employees reported that the building smelled of fire long after, no matter how much cleaning was done. 

In 1977, the General Services Administration commissioned a study on how to prevent other federal records facilities from fire. This report, Protecting Federal Records Centers and Archives from Fire, concluded that other government holdings were also at risk. Many other records centers had the same problems as the Military Personnel Records Center—notably, poor storage and nonexistent or insufficient sprinkler systems—and the report indicated that another fire was more likely a when, not an if. The report also outlined a variety of ways that federal facilities could mitigate effects from fires, should they occur, but stressed that this was only possible if every recommendation was followed.

Other records facilities and archives listened and started instituting improved safekeeping methods, but nothing could completely remove the chances of fire. In 1978, over 12 million feet of newsreel film caught fire in one of the vaults at the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, MD. The film, newsreel footage donated by Universal Pictures to the National Archives, contained film of D-Day, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and other important events in America’s history. Unfortunately, the nitrate film was highly flammable and burned quickly, leading to an almost total loss.

In 2011, NPRC finally moved from the building where the fire took place to a brand-new facility in north St. Louis. For six months, staff moved over a hundred million records. The burnt files were some of the last to be moved, and although care was given to moving all the records, staff gave particular attention to burnt records. Because most of the affected files were kept in cold storage, workers had to ensure that the records were quickly moved to their new location.

Even in the new facility, the fire is something that the staff at the National Personnel Records Center still deal with today. Out of the thousands of records requests that the NPRC receives on a weekly basis, hundreds are still for fire-related records. There are dedicated teams assigned to answering requests for records that were damaged in the fire; they look at auxiliary records such as morning reports, pay vouchers, and hospital admission cards. There is also a state-of-the-art preservation lab at the NPRC where members of the Preservation Branch work on requested burnt records.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the fire, the National Archives compiled a list of resources on the fire and the aftermath. It includes stories, images, and an oral history collection with staff about the fire and how it affected their work.

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