Remembering the St. Louis Fire That Destroyed Millions of Military Records

A catastrophic blaze at the National Personnel Record Center still has repercussions 50 years later

Aug 3, 2023 at 9:09 am
click to enlarge Workers trying to save military personnel files after a fire at the National Personnel Record Center in Overland.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES
Workers trying to save military personnel files after a fire at the National Personnel Record Center in Overland.

Starting just after midnight on July 12, 1973, a fire broke out at the National Personnel Record Center in Overland, Missouri. The first to notice was a group of interns, who quickly escaped and dialed 911. Moments later, a passing motorist followed suit. Within four minutes, firefighters were on the scene — the building was now fiercely ablaze.

With each passing minute, flames consumed more and more of the millions of military records housed at the center.

At 3:15 a.m., firefighters were forced to withdraw from the building's interior as smoke and heat intensified. The fire burned uncontrollably for 22 consecutive hours before the firefighters could safely re-enter the building. Once inside, extinguishment efforts were far from over. 

Meanwhile, plumes of smoke and sulfur saturated the atmosphere, confining the neighboring residents indoors. 

Extinguishing the fire took the combined efforts of 42 fire districts, according to the National Archives, and the fire wasn’t declared “out” until July 16 — nearly four and a half days following the initial report.

This summer marks 50 years since the fire. In the past five decades, the fire’s repercussions still remain at the forefront of St. Louis’ archival work. With advancements in technology, millions of records were recovered, and archivists continue to restore the affected files. 

The night of the fire, an estimated 16 to 18 million Official Military Personnel Files were destroyed. While these files were often of interest to genealogists and historians, they were also the formal documentation of a veteran’s military service, from enlistment to separation, needed to prove eligibility for veterans benefits. The files hold both practical use and sentimental value, some files included hundreds of documents, including telegraphs and photos of the veterans on assignment, according to the National Archives.

click to enlarge The aftermath of the 1973 fire.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES
The aftermath of the 1973 fire.

The fire destroyed 80 percent of army personnel discharge files dated from November 1, 1912, to January 1, 1960, and 75 percent of air force discharge files dated from September 25, 1947, to January 1, 1964. 

Located on the sixth floor, which incurred the most damage, was a vault of noteworthy records. 

Among the burnt files were those of former president John F. Kennedy, actor Jimmy Stewart, serial killer Jeffery Dahmer and Adolf Hitler’s nephew, William Stuart-Houston, who served in the U.S. Navy.

Furthermore, countless records on several floors were damaged by water from extinguishment efforts. Thousands of pounds of water, mixed with St. Louis’ humid summer heat made the center ripe for mold infestation. 

Still in late July the Federal Property Management Regulation B-39 announced a “save all records” policy. Within days, a tent city of archivists had formed outside the remains of the center, which had to completely demolish its sixth floor.

While a fleet of boom cranes, backhoes and bulldozers worked mechanically to remove debris on the highly damaged upper floors, archivists, equipped with rubber boots and squeegees, removed records buried beneath broken glass and standing water on the lower levels. 

The air heavy with the smell of thymol, an antiseptic spray used to combat the growing mold colonies, archivists worked around the clock in shifts to limit their exposure.

Mickey McGuire was an archivist technician at the center during the time of the fire. In an interview with the National Archives and Records Administration, commemorating 50 years since the fire, McGuire reflected on the days immediately following the incident.

“We would push water down the hallway and out the front door and down the stairwells. Then down on the next floor they were doing the same thing.” McGuire said. “Standing there, you really realize that this was not going to be easy nor fun.”

As archivists like McGuire recovered files, salvageable records were labeled as B-Files, as in “burned files,” and loaded into plastic milk cartons. The National Archives cataloged that a few cases of records were shipped to a NASA facility in Ohio, but the majority were transported a few miles south to a temporary facility on Winnebago Street and to the McDonnell Douglas Aircraft center for recovery. 

At McDonnell Douglas, waterlogged records were loaded into a vacuum chamber used to simulate space conditions for drying. 

Each chamber held nearly 2,000 crates at capacity, and through a process of modulating air temperature, a single session collected eight pounds of water per carton or eight tons of water per session. 

Although 6.5 million records were recovered, millions more were irrevocably damaged. 

Without access to these records, veterans would be unable to claim benefits or apply for other federal jobs.

click to enlarge An example of a B-file, or a burned file, that is partially destroyed from the 1973 blaze.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES
An example of a B-file, or a burned file, that is partially destroyed from the 1973 blaze.

With such senseless destruction, fingers were eagerly and often recklessly pointed. In Walter W. Stender and Evans Walker’s account of the incident, “The National Personnel Records Fire: A Study In Disaster,” they detail that while some suggested the possibility of an electrical malfunction, others rumored arson.

Three months after the fire, a janitor confessed to authorities that he had extinguished a cigarette on the building’s sixth floor, just an hour before the fire started. No one was ever indicted for the fire and no evidence of mechanical malfunction was found in the building's debris. Yet, due to the extent of the damage, authorities to this day remain unable to determine the fire’s cause.

Archivists, in an attempt to recover the lost information, began searching for adjacent records. Using documentation from the Government Accountability Office and the Adjunct General’s office, researchers collected veterans affairs claims, x-rays, selective service documentation and pay records to begin reconstruction.

The process extended for decades after the fire. Eric Volez, who began working at the center in 1977 as an archivist specialist trainee, recalls the years after the fire.

“The fire was still very much on everyone's mind,” Volez said in an interview with the National Archives and Records Administration. “No matter how well they had rehabbed the building, and it really was a mess after the fire, no matter how well they rehabbed it, you could still smell the fire ...”

As archival work continued, records requests did not cease. Many of the files destroyed were those of World War II veterans, a group with an increasing need as it neared retirement age.

“It was incumbent upon us to do our best to try and get the basic information that you needed to prove you're a veteran,” Volez told the National Archives and Records Administration. 

Since the structure on Page Avenue was irreparable, a new home for the recovered records became vital. In designing the new venue, the National Personnel Record Center’s faults resurfaced.

In 1951, the Department of Defense hired the St. Louis firm Hellmuth, Yamasaki, and Leinweber, Inc. to discuss the construction of a records center in St. Louis.

The square design that was ultimately chosen was economical, and therefore, attractive to the DOD. Yet, architects found several potential disadvantages to the towering square design, namely poor vertical circulation within the building.

Even more concerning, the building had minimal fire safety provisions. At the time of its construction, a debate over the use of sprinklers was at the forefront of archivists' discussions. While many advocated for their use, countless archivists viewed the potential of accidental water damage as far more likely than a fire. 

Ultimately, the center did not install sprinklers.

Each of the six floors contained nearly 200,000 feet of vast, unbroken storage space. Typically, a building of this size would contain several cement walls, known as firewalls, to segment the space. However, there was only one firewall made of concrete blocks toward the edge of the building separating the storage floors from office space. 

Without this partitioning, the fire was able to quickly sweep across and up each level of the building.

Just months after the building's completion, the National Archives and Record Service announced that moving forward, all archival buildings must be equipped with smoke detectors and sprinklers. 

The center’s failings sat heavy on the mind of the architects who would build the new records center. In 2011, a new facility was completed in Hazelwood to house the B-files — equipped with fire provisions galore. 

Today, the new center reports that they receive over 4,000 requests for personnel records each day — oftentimes, the requested file is a B-file. When this happens, archivists locate the record in the preservation unit and assess the record's condition. 

Noah Durham, the supervisory preservation specialists at the St. Louis facility, describes the assessment as a sort of “triage.”

“We're trying to make the record serviceable, meaning that it won't degrade or flake or break apart during its handling by the requester,” Durham said in an interview with NARA. “We also want to ensure that it doesn't represent a health risk to the person with any active or inactive mold that might be in there.”

After checking for mold and performing a surface cleaning, the record is typically digitized. Burned records undergo a specialized infrared imaging process and a series of digital manipulations that allow archivists to see through the charring on the records. 

Infrared imaging has revolutionized the recovery process, making records previously deemed unsalvageable available to veterans seeking benefits. The National Archives report that over 30,000 fire-affected records are triaged annually. 

While the fire was officially put out in 1973, embers continue to burn in the minds of countless archivists. Each surviving document fuels a story that reminds us of the faults of our past, the power of collaboration and the necessity of preservation.

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