Fire underway, 1973, Aerial View of MILPERCEN, National Archives.
|Date||July 12, 1973|
|Venue||National Personnel Records Center|
|Location||Overland, Missouri, United States|
The National Personnel Records Center fire of 1973, also referred to as the 1973 National Archives fire, was a fire that occurred at the Military Personnel Records Center (MPRC - part of the National Personnel Records Center) in Overland, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, on July 12, 1973, striking a severe blow to the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States. MPRC, the custodian of military service records, lost approximately 16–18 million official military personnel records as a result of the fire.
The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) was created in 1956 as the result of a series of mergers of predecessor agencies beginning after World War II, including the Demobilized Personnel Records Center (DPRC) and the Military Personnel Records Center (MILPERCEN, pronounced "mil'-per-cen") of the Department of Defense, along with the St. Louis Federal Records Center of the General Services Administration. In final form, the NPRC handled the service records of persons in Federal civil service or American military service, overseen by the National Archives and Records Administration of the General Services Administration.
In 1951, the Department of Defense retained the Detroit firm of Hellmuth, Yamasaki, and Leinweber, architects, to design a new facility for its Demobilized Personnel Records Center. The firm visited several similar operations, including a U.S. Navy records center at Garden City, New York, and a Department of Defense facility in Alexandria, Virginia. They studied the functions of each facility and the nature of the storage systems employed. Their report, submitted in February 1952, detailed different approaches used to achieve the respective centers' missions. Particularly relevant in light of future events were the findings with regard to fire prevention, detection, and suppression systems. The Naval records center in Garden City, New York, for example, was outfitted with a full fire sprinkler system, while the Department of Defense facility in Alexandria, Virginia, was not.
This reflected an ongoing debate at the time among archivists and librarians about the relative merits of sprinkler systems. Some felt that there was a greater chance for water damage from the activation of one or more sprinkler heads, whether in a fire or accidentally, than for fire damage without sprinklers to suppress it, while others were of the opposite opinion. The architects proceeded with the selected plan for a six-story structure set on a 70 acres (28 ha) site, with each floor measuring 728 ft × 282 ft (222 m × 86 m) and encompassing 205,296 sq ft (19,072.6 m2) for a total of 1,231,776 sq ft (114,435.7 m2). The building was constructed of prestressed concrete floors and roof supported by concrete interior columns and surrounded by a curtain wall of aluminum and glass. Construction was completed in 1956 by the United States Army Corps of Engineers at a cost of $12.5 million, $115 million in today's dollars, an economical $10.15 per square foot ($109.25 per square meter).
On each of the floors were large spaces for records storage stretching hundreds of feet and containing no firewalls or other firestopping to limit the spread of fire. Along the north side of each floor were offices, separated from the records storage area by a concrete block wall. The entire facility lacked heat or smoke detectors to detect fire automatically or a fire sprinkler system to extinguish fire automatically. When the facility opened in 1956, it housed some 38 million military personnel records. By the time of the 1973 fire, their ranks had swelled to over 52 million records. Additionally, 500,000 cubic feet (14,000 cubic metres) of military unit records were added to the collection of the center. The staff of the center as of 1973 consisted of more than 2,200 personnel, including GSA management and staff as well as military and civilian personnel from the Army, Navy Air Force, Marines, the Army Reserve, the FBI, and others.
At 12:16:15 AM on July 12, 1973, the Olivette Fire Department reported to its dispatcher that the NPRC building was on fire. At 12:16:35, 20 seconds later, a building security guard picked up the fire phone and relayed the report of a passing motorcyclist who also observed the fire. By 12:17:25, the first fire trucks were dispatched: three pumpers and two other emergency vehicles from the Community Fire Protection, arriving at 12:20:35. Forty-two fire districts eventually contributed to the effort to put out the fire.
Ultimately, the fire burned out of control for 22 hours, being fought from the exterior of the building because heat and smoke within compelled firefighters to withdraw at 3:15 AM. Insufficient water pressure plagued efforts and a pumper broke down mechanically in its 40th continuous hour of operation. Crews entered the building again on July 14 while the fire continued to smolder for another two days. The fire was declared out on the morning of July 16, but crews continued using spray to suppress rekindling until the end of the month.
The exact cause of the fire was never fully determined. An investigation in 1975 suggested embers of cigarettes present in several trash cans as a possible cause, and at least one local newspaper reported that an employee had started the fire by smoking in the records area (a report largely assumed to be false). Deliberate arson was ruled out as a cause almost immediately by investigators, as interviews of some personnel who had been in the building just twenty minutes before the first fire alarm reported nothing out of the ordinary. In 1974, investigators of the General Services Administration stated that an electrical short was most likely the cause of the fire but that, owing to the near-total destruction of the sixth floor, where the fire had occurred, a specific investigation into the electrical systems was impossible.
The losses to Federal military records collection included:
None of the records that were destroyed in the fire had duplicate copies made, nor had they been copied to microfilm. No index of these records was made prior to the fire, and millions of records were on loan to the Veterans Administration at the time of the fire. This made it difficult to precisely determine which records were lost.
On the morning of the National Archives Fire, a very small number of U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps records were out of their normal file area, being worked on as active requests by employees of the National Archives and Records Administration who maintained their offices on the 6th floor of the building. When the NPRC fire began, these Navy and Marine Corps records were caught in the section of the building which experienced the most damage in the fire.
The exact number of Navy and Marine Corps records destroyed in the fire is unknown, since such records were being removed only for a few days while information was retrieved from them and were not normally stored in the area of the building that experienced the fire. Estimates indicate that the number of affected records was no more than two to three dozen. Such records are considered "special cases," and no accounting could be made of which records were affected, so the present policy of NPRC is to state that there were no Navy and Marine Corps records destroyed in the fire and to treat these records as records that had been lost in ordinary circumstances.
The destroyed sixth floor of the NPRC also housed a security vault that contained high-profile and notable records of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps personnel. Known as the "Sixth Floor Vault," confirmed destroyed records included the Navy file of Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou as well as the record of Adolf Hitler's nephew William Patrick Hitler. The sixth-floor security vault also held all the records of current NPRC employees who had their own Navy and Marine Corps records retired at the agency.
The 1973 fire destroyed the entire sixth floor of the National Personnel Records Center and greatly affected the fifth floor with water damage. As part of the reconstruction, the entire sixth floor was removed owing to the extensive damage, resulting in the current structure's now consisting of five floors. The rehabilitated building has firewalls to divide the large, open records storage areas. Smoke detection and sprinkler systems have also been added to prevent a repetition of the 1973 fire. Signs of the fire can still be seen today. A massive effort to restore destroyed service records began in 1974. In most cases where a military record has been presumed destroyed, NPRC is able to reconstruct basic service information, such as military date of entry, date of discharge, character of service, and final rank.