National Personnel Records Center fire

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National Personnel Records Center fire
NARAfire.jpg
Fire underway, 1973, Aerial View of MILPERCEN, National Archives.
DateJuly 12, 1973 (1973-07-12)
Venue National Personnel Records Center
Location Overland, Missouri, United States
Coordinates 38°41′06″N90°22′14″W / 38.68513°N 90.37065°W / 38.68513; -90.37065 Coordinates: 38°41′06″N90°22′14″W / 38.68513°N 90.37065°W / 38.68513; -90.37065
TypeFire
CauseUnknown

The National Personnel Records Center fire of 1973, [1] 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. [1] MPRC, the custodian of military service records, lost approximately 16–18 million official military personnel records as a result of the fire. [2]

The Military Personnel Records Center (NPRC-MPR), located at 1 Archives Drive in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, is a branch of the National Personnel Records Center and is the repository of over 56 million military personnel records and medical records pertaining to retired, discharged, and deceased veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

The National Personnel Records Center(s) (NPRC) is an agency of the National Archives and Records Administration, created in 1966. It is part of the National Archives federal records center system and is divided into two large Federal Records Centers located in St. Louis, Missouri and Valmeyer, Illinois. The term "National Personnel Records Center" is often used interchangeably to describe both the physical Military Personnel Records Center facility and as an overall term for all records centers in the St. Louis area. To differentiate between the two, the broader term is occasionally referred to as the "National Personnel Records Centers".

Overland, Missouri City in Missouri, United States

Overland is a city in St. Louis County, Missouri, United States. The population was 16,062 at the 2010 census.

Contents

Background

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. [1]

The Demobilized Personnel Records Center (DPRC) was an installation of the United States Army which operated in St. Louis, Missouri from 1945 to 1956. The facility was housed in the former Goodfellow ordnance plant in St. Louis and became the central repository for all service records of discharged service members of the United States Army.

General Services Administration United States government agency

The General Services Administration (GSA), an independent agency of the United States government, was established in 1949 to help manage and support the basic functioning of federal agencies. GSA supplies products and communications for U.S. government offices, provides transportation and office space to federal employees, and develops government-wide cost-minimizing policies and other management tasks.

The civil service is independent of government and is also composed mainly of career bureaucrats hired on professional merit rather than appointed or elected, whose institutional tenure typically survives transitions of political leadership. A civil servant or public servant is a person employed in the public sector on behalf of a government department or agency. A civil servant or public servant's first priority is to represent the interests of citizens. The extent of civil servants of a state as part of the "civil service" varies from country to country. In the United Kingdom, for instance, only Crown employees are referred to as civil servants whereas county or city employees are not.

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. [1]

Minoru Yamasaki American architect

Minoru Yamasaki was an American architect, best known for designing the original World Trade Center in New York City and several other large-scale projects. Yamasaki was one of the most prominent architects of the 20th century. He and fellow architect Edward Durell Stone are generally considered to be the two master practitioners of "New Formalism".

Architect person trained to plan and design buildings, and oversee their construction

An architect is a person who plans, designs and reviews the construction of buildings. To practice architecture means to provide services in connection with the design of buildings and the space within the site surrounding the buildings that have human occupancy or use as their principal purpose. Etymologically, architect derives from the Latin architectus, which derives from the Greek, i.e., chief builder.

United States Navy Naval warfare branch of the United States Armed Forces

The United States Navy (USN) is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. It is the largest and most capable navy in the world and it has been estimated that in terms of tonnage of its active battle fleet alone, it is larger than the next 13 navies combined, which includes 11 U.S. allies or partner nations. With the highest combined battle fleet tonnage and the world's largest aircraft carrier fleet, with eleven in service, and two new carriers under construction. With 319,421 personnel on active duty and 99,616 in the Ready Reserve, the U.S. Navy is the third largest of the U.S. military service branches in terms of personnel. It has 282 deployable combat vessels and more than 3,700 operational aircraft as of March 2018, making it the third-largest air force in the world, after the United States Air Force and the United States Army.

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. [1] 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). [1]

Archivist professional who assesses, collects, organizes, preserves, maintains control over, and provides access to information determined to have long-term value

An archivist is an information professional who assesses, collects, organizes, preserves, maintains control over, and provides access to records and archives determined to have long-term value. The records maintained by an archivist can consist of a variety of forms, including letters, diaries, logs, other personal documents, government documents, sound and/or picture recordings, digital files, or other physical objects.

Librarian person who works professionally in a library, and is usually trained in librarianship

A librarian is a person who works professionally in a library, providing access to information and sometimes social or technical programming to users. In addition, librarians provide instruction on information literacy.

Water damage

Water damage describes a large number of possible losses caused by water intruding where it will enable attack of a material or system by destructive processes such as rotting of wood, growth, rusting of steel, de-laminating of materials such as plywood, and many others.

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. [1] 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. [1]

Firewall (construction) barrier used to prevent the spread of fire through or between structures

A firewall is a fire-resistant barrier used to prevent the spread of fire for a prescribed period of time. Firewalls are built between or through buildings, structures, electrical substation transformers, or within an aircraft or vehicle.

A firestop or fire-stopping is a form of passive fire protection that is used to seal around openings and between joints in a fire-resistance-rated wall or floor assembly. Firestops are designed to maintain the fireproofing of a wall or floor assembly allowing it to impede the spread of fire and smoke.

United States Army Land warfare branch of the United States Armed Forces

The United States Army (USA) is the land warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces. It is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States, and is designated as the Army of the United States in the United States Constitution. As the oldest and most senior branch of the U.S. military in order of precedence, the modern U.S. Army has its roots in the Continental Army, which was formed to fight the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783)—before the United States of America was established as a country. After the Revolutionary War, the Congress of the Confederation created the United States Army on 3 June 1784 to replace the disbanded Continental Army. The United States Army considers itself descended from the Continental Army, and dates its institutional inception from the origin of that armed force in 1775.

Fire

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.

Olivette, Missouri City in Missouri, United States

Olivette is an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis, located in St. Louis County, Missouri, United States. The population was 7,737 at the 2010 census.

Security guard person employed to protect property or people

A security guard is a person employed by a government or private party to protect the employing party’s assets from a variety of hazards by enforcing preventative measures. Security guards do this by maintaining a high-visibility presence to deter illegal and inappropriate actions, looking for signs of crime or other hazards, taking action to minimize damage, and reporting any incidents to their clients and emergency services, as appropriate.

Emergency vehicle vehicle that is designated and authorized to respond to an emergency

An emergency vehicle is any vehicle that is designated and authorized to respond to an emergency in a life-threatening situation. These vehicles are usually operated by designated agencies, often part of the government, but also run by charities, non-governmental organizations and some commercial companies. Often emergency vehicles are permitted by law to break conventional road rules in order to reach their destinations in the fastest possible time, such as driving through an intersection when the traffic light is red, or exceeding the speed limit. In some states, however, the driver of an emergency vehicle can still be sued if the driver shows "reckless disregard for the safety of others."

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.

Cause

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. [3]

Affected records

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. [2]

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.

Damage and reconstruction

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.

Notes

  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Stender, Walter W.; Evans Walker (October 1974). "The National Personnel Records Center Fire: A Study in Disaster" (PDF). The American Archivist . Society of American Archivists. 37 (4). Retrieved 2009-01-31.
  2. 1 2 3 4 "The 1973 Fire at the National Personnel Records Center (St. Louis, MO)". Archives.gov . College Park, Maryland: National Personnel Records Center, National Archives and Records Administration. 2007-06-19. Retrieved 2009-01-31.
  3. Stender, Walter W. & Evans Walker, "The National Personnel Records Center Fire: A Study in Disaster," The American Archivist. Society of American Archivists (October 1974)

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See also