The Arrowhead Club

The 1973 Fire

On July 12, 1973, shortly after midnight, a fire was reported at the military personnel records building of the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in the Overland area of St. Louis, MO. Firefighters were on the scene in a little over four minutes after the first alarm. They were able to reach the fire on the sixth floor, but heat and smoke forced them out three hours later.

To combat the fire and contain the flames, the firefighters poured great quantities of water on the building and inside through broken windows. The fire, fueled by all those paper records, burned for twenty-two hours. It was two days before firefighters could re-enter the building. The fire department deemed the fire officially out on July 16, nearly four and a half days after it started. Investigators never officially determined the source of the fire due to the extensive damage.

The fire destroyed sixteen to eighteen million Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF). Records of Army personnel, of which WWII Army Air Forces were a part, discharged between November 1, 1912 to January 1, 1960, suffered an eighty percent loss. There were no duplicate or microfilm copies, or even any indexes prior to the fire.

The National Archives immediately began a salvage operation to save as many records as possible. On July 23, Federal Property Management Regulations (FPRM) Bulletin B-39 halted Federal agencies from disposing of records that might be helpful in recreating the lost military service records. Those records have helped reconstruction efforts of basic service information. Also on July 23, the NPRC awarded a construction contract to salvage the remains from the sixth floor, and recovery efforts began. Approximately six and a half million burned and water damaged records were recovered due to this effort.

Just behind the fire damage was the water damage. Firefighters poured millions of gallons of water into the building fighting the fire. To stop sporadic flame-ups, they continued spraying water until late July. Broken water lines also flooded the building. The heaviest water damage was on the fifth floor, one floor below the destruction of the fire on the sixth. Once all the water was combined with the high temperatures and humidity of St. Louis in the summer, the next avenue of destruction was mold. Thymol was sprayed throughout the building to control a mold outbreak on all that highly susceptible paper.

The next challenge was how to dry all those millions of water-soaked records that remained. Records were shipped in plastic milk crates to several sites for drying on racks made from shelving. The McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis had vacuum-drying facilities, and those were utilized in addition to a NASA facility in Ohio.

During the reconstruction effort, the NPRC established a “B” (Burned) Registry file to index the six and a half million recovered records and set up a separate temperature controlled area for them. In April 1974, the NPRC established the “R” (Reconstructed) Registry file to further assist the reconstruction efforts. Reconstructed files were then stored in another new area separate from the Burned Registry files.

In the months following the fire, the NPRC established a new branch to deal with damaged records issues. The new branch’s central mission was to reconstruct records for those requesting service information. Records were reconstructed from documents and alternate sources outside of the NPRC as well as the center’s organizational files. Alternate sources included Veterans Administration (VA) claims files, individual state records, Multiple Name Pay Vouchers (MPV) from the Adjutant General’s Office, Selective Service System (SSS) registration records, pay records from the Government Accounting Office (GAO), as well as medical records from military hospitals, entrance and separation x-rays and organizational records.

Source of information:

To be continued:  how to request records and my personal experience locating my dad’s service records with the NPRC.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016

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