Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Fire at the Military Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, 1973

Fire at the Military Personnel Records Center

Firefighters with high ladders continue pouring water onto the sixth floor of the Military Personnel Records Center. Thousands of records had been stored in cardboard boxes stacked on steel shelves. All that paper fed the fire for more than two days. It would take 50 hours for firefighters to finally put it out. Post-Dispatch file photo

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Fire at the Military Personnel Records Center

A clerk sorts through files in the Army's fourth-floor storage area, which housed 12,300 steel filing cabinets. They contained about half of the 6 million files accumulated by June 1956 of personnel who served after World War II. Post-Dispatch file photo

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I’ve always questioned that fire!!

Yeah, what a shame the military records of quite a few of the “colored” soldiers’ residing here in St. Louis went up in those flames!!

A group of “colored” soldiers, who were friends, served in the military in 1941-1943 and all contracted symptoms similar to those describe in “The Tuskegee experiment”. Their military records were destroyed in that fire, and they all died at a relatively young age.

I’m convinced there were much, much more than 399 Tuskegee test subjects!!!

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bohunk said on: July 12, 2010, 9:24 am
What the year long federal investigation apparently failed to mention was that the bull-headed higher ups in management ? would not allow the local municipalities to help contain the fire until it was too late. By then , the damage was done.!

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July 11, 2010, St Louis Post-Dispatch, [] A look back • Military records center fire burned for two days, destroying millions of files, by Jasmine Osby, > 314-340-8222 | Posted: Sunday, 12:00 am

OVERLAND • The U.S. Military Records Center was packed with more than 35 million files about the nation's former military personnel. Employees received almost 5,800 letters every day and dutifully tried to answer them within 24 hours.

The six-story center, at 9700 Page Boulevard, protected and managed records dating to 1885. In all, 1,500 people worked there, with much of the key work being done in tight rows of filing cabinets inside the vast open floors.

When the building was dedicated in 1956, it was the largest in the St. Louis area and one of the 20 biggest in the world. The footprint of the 1.35 million square-foot building would cover about 28 football fields. Seven acres of glass covered its windows.

Almost two blocks long and a block wide, it housed records of all the service branches and several federal investigative agencies.

Although many files were in cardboard storage boxes stacked on steel shelves, managers considered their steel-and-concrete building virtually fireproof.

But some time early on July 12, 1973, a night-shift maintenance employee left a cigarette burning on the top floor.

With all that paper and cardboard, the scene turned into a fiery catastrophe. Firefighters from 11 area departments battled it with high ladders. Spectators lined the perimeter fence; children gathered the charred remains of paper fluttering down from the burning building.

Paper certificates, documents, records and awards continually fed the fire.

"It's like a straw fire — the more you poke it, the more oxygen it gets, and the more it burns," one firefighter said.

It took 50 hours of shooting water onto the top floor to finally put out the fire. About 15.5 million files — 80 percent of the storage on the top floor — were destroyed. That was the main repository of records of veterans of World Wars I and II.

A year-long federal investigation determined that the careless smoker wasn't the only one at fault. "The center ... had inadequate fire protection," the federal report said. "A sprinkler system covered only a small part of the building and fire partitions separating storage areas were on only two of the six floors."

The government removed the sixth floor, improved fire precautions and resumed business. Now called the National Personnel Records Center, it is to move next year to a new three-story building under construction in Spanish Lake, near Hazelwood East Middle School.

National Personnel Records Center Fire.

Mystery: What started the 1973 U.S. National Archives Fire?

The Watergate scandal was a 1970s United States political event. It began with the arrest of five men for breaking and entering into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972. The scandal directly led to the resignation of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, on August 9, 1974. Nixon is the first and only U.S. President to resign. Watergate also resulted in the indictment, trial, conviction and incarceration of Nixon administration officials. On July 12, 1973, the National Personnel Records Center fire occurred in Overland, Missouri, which is a suburb of St. Louis. The event marked a severe blow to the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States. Approximately 16-18 million official military personnel records were lost as a result of the fire.

The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) was created in 1956 as the result of a series of mergers. In 1956, the construction cost on the structure was $12.5 million, $101 million in today's dollars, an economical $10.15 per square foot ($110.51 per square meter). However, the builders did not include firewalls or other fire-stopping material. The entire facility holding millions of irreplaceable records lacked heat or smoke detectors to automatically report fire or a sprinkler system to extinguish fire. The 1973 fire destroyed the entire 6th floor of the NPRC, including millions of files documenting U.S. Army and Air Force personnel discharges. The huge collection of documents on the 6th floor did not have an index, making it impossible to determine what was lost.

Millions of records were on loan to the NPRC at the time of the fire. On the morning of the National Archives Fire, a very small number of U.S. Navy, United States Coast Guard, and U.S. Marine Corps records were out of their normal filing 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, but the circumstances surrounding the files was ruled to have been ordinary. None of the U.S. national records that were destroyed in the fire had duplicate copies made, nor had they been copied to microfilm.

The exact cause of the fire was never fully determined. An investigation in 1975, two-years after the occurrence, revealed that the floor where the fire started had been under extreme temperature with little or no ventilation. It was speculated that air pressure on the floor had reached such a level that, combined with the very high temperatures in the enclosed space, the brittle and dry records began to spontaneously combust. The investigation also did not rule out embers of cigarettes, which were present in several trash cans. The timing of the fire and the lackluster investigation has led to speculation about the real cause. One thing is for sure, a large portion of recorded U.S. history was lost in the NPRC fire of 1973.

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Preservation at the National Archives

Now You See It

Nearly 40 years after the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, work continues on the preservation of the fire-damaged records (affectionately known as the B-Files). This work takes place at our St. Louis Preservation office, and includes both conservation and reformatting of the documents.

At first, you may think that the written information located in the heavily burned area is unrecoverable. But with the use of Adobe Photoshop we can manipulate a digital image of the burned document to accentuate subtle differences in tones and make the burned area readable.

Our Reformatting Lab is in the planning stages of a project that will use infrared sensing cameras to photograph burned documents. It will be less labor intensive than the Photoshop process and will produce better quality images.

January 20, 2012, Upfront with NGS,

National Personnel Records Center -- St. Louis Facility Restores Burned or Otherwise Damaged Records

January 1, 2012, St. Louis Beacon, Lazarus archive: St. Louis facility restores burned or otherwise damaged records, By David Baugher, special to the Beacon, 8:35 am on Sun, 01.01.12

Blackened by fire, browned by heat and yellowed by age, much of what sits in the box in front of Marta O'Neill looks less like the sheaf of official documents it once was and more like what it is now - a sad mixture of singed paper and crumbled ash.

Photo by David Baugher

Marta O'Neill regularly sees damaged records transformed into something that can be read.

But O'Neill knows ash holds secrets others might think were lost forever.

"If you look at something go in a month's time from some charred, crumpled, mold-damaged wad of paper to a completely useable record, that's a very tangible thing you can see," said O'Neill, a preservation officer at the National Personnel Records Center run by the National Archives at St. Louis.

That you can see much at all on countless fire-damaged records being carefully reconstructed at the recently built North County facility is something of a miracle in itself. Most of them came from the ruins of the famous 1973 fire at the center's predecessor on Page Avenue. The legacy of that blaze created something of a nightmare for some military veterans who saw proof of their service go up in smoke. Since then, the government has been trying to carefully piece back together what remains.

"I don't know that any facility in the country or even in the Western Hemisphere is dealing with the size and volume of burned paper that's been damaged by fire and water, now being retained, salvaged and stored," said Wanda Williams, archivist at the institution.

A world of paper

The recovery project has been going on for more than a decade, which far predates the modern facility that now houses it. The new National Personnel Records Center was just completed earlier this year. Resting on almost 30 acres near Hazelwood East High School, the more than 474,000-square-foot facility is built to house about 2.3 million cubic feet of records. Even with almost 6,000 boxes a day coming into the building, the move-in still isn't expected to be complete until September when the structure will store approximately 100 million or more civilian and military records comprising a mind-boggling 9 billion pages and artifacts.

Photo by Lenin Hurtado | Archives

The view from the top is dizzying as a mesh catwalk runs across 29 feet of stacked storage.

The sheer numbers can be dizzying - as can the tour for a visitor who makes the mistake of looking down through the metal mesh catwalk in the records bay inviting a view straight through to the floor of the three-story building. The record bays have units 29 shelves high laden with boxes upon boxes of files.

The oceans of paper can leave one with an obvious question.

"People often ask why don't we just digitize them," said Bill Seibert, chief of archival operations.

It was a query that was answered with an intensive year-long study before construction could begin on the $115-million facility. In fact, it would have cost billions of dollars in staffing time to go electronic, not to mention decades of removing fasteners and hand-flattening documents for scanning. Worse, some old paper is simply too brittle to be fed through modern equipment.

That's in addition to the inevitable changes in electronic formats that regularly sweep the computing industry necessitating new rounds of recopying to the latest media.

"We had to show that it was more economically cost-effective to maintain the paper rather than to reformat it," Seibert said. "All in all, this is lower technology but it is much more cost-effective for the taxpayer."

Photo by David Baugher

Bill Seibert, chief of archival operation, said research found "it was more economically cost-effective to maintain the paper rather than to reformat it" into digital images.

Still, electronic resources do exist and many are available through the archives. A research area downstairs provides free access to various databases, including commercial genealogy websites.

Better yet, thanks to a deal struck in 2004, military service records are now examinable by more than simply the subject or the immediate next of kin. After 62 years pass from the date of the individual's separation from service, the record is open for use by the general public. Seibert said that's been an important point due to an upsurge in interest by the grandchildren of WW II vets who want to see that history.

"Before that agreement was reached, the records were in sort of an archival limbo," he said. "They were not appraised as permanent holdings of the federal government. They were temporary records, and it wasn't quite clear what would happen to them."

Meanwhile, the institution is working hard to introduce itself to the public. Beginning in October, a "Documented Rights" exhibit, which runs until March, has examined the struggle for equality and citizenship with a continuing exhibit of artifacts and papers as well as monthly programs on specific aspects of the topic. December's event focused on the internment of Japanese-Americans during WW II. Next month's spotlight will look at immigration with a Jan. 19 event that will feature a naturalization ceremony, though details are still to be worked out.

"Documented Rights" itself contains such varied items as Robert F. Kennedy's federal identification and baseball legend Jackie Robinson's court martial papers. The trial - and eventual acquittal - stemmed from an incident in which he refused to move to the back of a bus because of his race.

In fact, from Steve McQueen to Elvis Presley to Gen. George Patton, the National Archives has a special file of about 600 or so personnel records of prominent Americans.

"That's a discreet collection, which is our most intrinsically and monetarily valuable records," O'Neill said.

Fragments of the past

Wearing a white lab coat and studious glasses, Sara Holmes looks every bit the part of a physician or laboratory researcher but what the senior preservation specialist is interested in looking at right now is two small pebbles next to a rusty bit of paper clip. They were recovered from inside a file on board the U.S.S. Arizona, the American warship that serves as a submerged museum after its sinking by the Japanese 70 years ago this month.

Photo by David Baugher

Sara Holmes says a lot of technicians want to work on the Arizona project and learn about the people who were at Pearl Harbor.

"It does open the possibility that we've got a little bit of Pearl Harbor itself that got mixed in with the record," she said of the tiny rocks.

Due to its expertise in the field, the National Archives at St. Louis has been the site of recent document recovery work on records from the Arizona, many of them damaged by water or fire. Holmes said she's examined more than 50 so far.

She noted there was high interest among her technicians wanting to work on the Arizona project and interact with the personnel documents.

"There is a lot of artifactual value to them because they have scars from the bombing themselves," she said. "They also have a lot of information about the people as individuals so you can get to know them as well."

Not all burns are created equal. Holmes noted the unusual circular browning patterns on the record in front of her centered near the middle of the folded document. That's because the metal fastener in the middle heated up, charring the parchment around it.

"This is more like a burn from an oven," she said. "It didn't come into direct contact with the fire."

Even when things do come into direct contact with flame, all hope is not lost, as the recovery of the 1973 records show. O'Neill explains that although the paper is burnt, the ink may still be intact, resting invisibly on the ash. By electronically scanning the document and then separating the color layers, previously unreadable information begins to come to life.

But fire isn't paper's only enemy. O'Neill said damage can include tar, roofing material, dirt or mold. Even insect infestations, like those from hungry termites or cockroaches, can wreak havoc. O'Neill notes that spiders aren't so much of a problem as they don't eat paper. In fact, their diet sometimes helpfully includes insects that do.

'documented rights'
For details and reservations on "Documented Rights" and related exhibits, call 314-801-0847 or e-mail to schedule a tour.

Different types of documents require different treatments. Mold may have to be neutralized or vacuumed away using a specially modified surgical pump. Water damage can also be a problem, buckling or distorting paper. Ironically, sometimes the answer can be the introduction of more moisture. Humidifying certain paper can make it pliable enough to flatten it out again.

"We also give documents baths and submerge them in water depending on the type of paper and ink on them," O'Neill said. "You can submerge them to get a lot of the chemical degredents and metal particles out of it. We also sometimes use buffering agents to make the paper less acidic and balance out the alkalinity."

Photo by David Baugher

The damage here was caused by insects.

As for the 1973 documents, more is often at stake than idle curiosity or historical value. A veteran's eligibility for benefits or honors can hinge on proper documentation.

"Sometimes we consider ourselves to be like a MASH unit," O'Neill said noting that rush requests for a particular veteran's file may expedite the process where necessary. "We do what we need to get the information. Then the record might go back into the file and not get any further treatment until it's called up again."

That sort of triage is needed because of the sheer volume of records from the fire and the slow, painstaking process for treatment. Over the past decade, the National Archives has fully treated about 15,000 to 20,000 records, a figure that sounds impressive but is only a fraction of the staggering 6.5 million records that await the institution's recovery efforts from the fire.

It's estimated about 18 million other records went up in flames entirely and sometimes treatment of the surviving documents can take as much as a month.

At the present rate, O'Neill admits the process will not be completed in her lifetime, nor even over several centuries. Yet despite this, each record that gives up its secrets is another small victory.

"It's a very tangible, hands-on kind of work where you can see immediate results," she said. "Not too many things in life give you an immediate result."

David Baugher is a freelance reporter. To reach him, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.

Accessing veterans’ records
by Guest Blogger on November 10, 2011

One of the most frequent kinds of research requests we receive concerns gaining access to military veterans’ service records. To do our part to commemorate Veterans Day tomorrow, we’ve askedTheresa Fitzgerald of the Archives’ National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis to write a post on everything you ever wanted to know about accessing veterans’ records.

You can track a military member’s journey in the fight to defend freedom and hold documents that tell stories of courage and valor. The National Archives at St. Louis is the repository of millions of military personnel, health, and medical records of veterans of all services during the late 19th and 20th century. In 2004, the government designated Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) as permanent historical records. This expanded public access to records filled with a wealth of family history. You can access these records, after the legal transfer from the Department of Defense (DoD) into NARA’s holdings, 62 years following a military service member’s discharge, retirement, or death in service.

Though military personnel files constitute its core holdings, the National Archives at St. Louis is the repository for numerous related series such as the Selective Service System registration cards and classification ledgers that document the military draft in force between 1940 and 1975; Army General Courts Martial case files (including an index for records dated 1911-1976, and accessing records dated 1940-1976, with all records dated through 1917 in our Washington, DC building and those dated approximately 1918-1939 in our College Park, Maryland facility); and trade cards describing specific aspects of civilian work in Naval shipyards during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The holdings also include personnel files of individuals employed by the Civil Service such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, Panama Canal Commission, Department of State, U.S. Customs Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and several hundred additional government departments.

Registration card of Stanley Frank Musial, front and back.

Archival Records – The National Archives at St. Louis maintains Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) of those servicemen that were discharged, retired, or deceased 62 years from the current date. These records belong to the National Archives and become archival 62 years after the service member’s separation from the military. This is a rolling date. For example, the current year (2011) minus 62 years is 1949. Therefore, records with a discharge date of 1949 and prior are archival and open to the public. Additionally, various records of Persons of Exceptional Prominence (PEP) are also archival and open to the public. Requests for archival records do NOT require a signature.

In 1973, the National Personnel Records Center had a disastrous fire that destroyed 80% of our Army personnel records from 1912 to 1960 and 75% of our Air Force records from 1947 to 1964, with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E. Please keep in mind when requesting a record from these particular service branches that the record may be fire related and require preservation treatment. If this is the case, it will take several weeks to either receive a copy of the record, if requested by mail, or view the record in the archival research room, if visiting our facility.

Non-Archival Records – Records of individuals who left service less than 62 years ago are not yet archival. These non-archival records are maintained at the National Personnel Records Center, but remain in the legal custody of the military service departments. A non-archival OMPF is open to the veteran, the next of kin, or to a third-party requester who has the veteran’s written authorization. Under the provisions of FOIA, the general public may only obtain limited information from these records.Requests for non-archival records must be signed and dated.

A request for a military personnel record, archival or non-archival, should include:
The veteran’s complete name used in service
Service number
Branch of service
Date and place of birth
Dates of service

For archival or non-archival requests, submit a letter or Standard Form 180 with the above information to:

National Personnel Records Center
1 Archives Drive
St. Louis, MO 63138

Or, to request an archival or non-archival record via eVetRecs, visit our website and follow the steps provided.

Official Military Personnel Files, as well as auxiliary records, may also be viewed by visiting our research rooms. Archival and non-archival records are accessed in separate Research Rooms. If you would like to view both archival and non-archival records, you must schedule an appointment with each Research Room by calling 314-801-0850 for the Archival Research Room, or 314-801-0800 for the Non-Archival Research Room.


The Fire
What Was Lost
Reconstruction of Old Records
Alternate Sources of Military Service Data
Necessary Information for File Reconstruction

The National Archives and Records Administration is the official depository for records of military personnel separated from the United States Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy. The records are housed in three locations: the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Md., and the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Mo.

The NPRC contains records relating to:
U.S. Army officers separated after June 30, 1917, and enlisted Army personnel separated after October 31, 1912.

U.S. Air Force officers and enlisted personnel separated after September 1947.

U.S. Naval officers separated after 1902, and naval enlisted personnel separated after 1885. U.S. Marine Corps officers separated after 1895, and enlisted personnel separated after 1904.

U.S. Coast Guard officers separated after 1928, and enlisted personnel separated after 1914. Civilian employees of predecessor agencies (Revenue Cutter Service, Life-Saving Service and Lighthouse Service) of the U.S. Coast Guard from 1864- 1919.

The Fire

A fire at the NPRC in St. Louis on July 12, 1973, destroyed about 80 percent of the records for Army personnel discharged between November 1, 1912, and January 1, 1960. About 75 percent of the records for Air Force personnel with surnames from "Hubbard" through "Z" discharged between September 25, 1947, and January 1, 1964, were also destroyed.

What Was Lost

It is hard to determine exactly what was lost in the fire, because there were no indices to the blocks of records involved. The records were merely filed in alphabetical order for the following groups:
World War I: Army September 7, 1939 to November 1, 1912

World War II: Army December 3l, 1946 to September 8, 1939

Post World War II: Army December 3l, 1959 to January 1, 1947; Air Force: December 31, 1963 to September 25, 1947

Millions of records, especially medical records, had been withdrawn from all three groups and loaned to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) prior to the fire. The fact that one's records are not in NPRC files at a particular time does not mean the records were destroyed in the fire.

Reconstruction of Lost Records

If a veteran is advised that his or her records may have been lost in the fire, he or she may send photocopies of any documents they possess to the NPRC, particularly separation documents. The address is National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records, 9700 Page Blvd., St. Louis, MO 631325 1 00. This enables the NPRC to re-establish files by adding those documents to the computerized index and filing them permanently.

Alternate Sources of Military Service Data

In the event a veteran does not have any records in his or her possession, the essential military service data may be available from a number of alternate sources.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) maintains records on veterans whose military records were affected by the fire if the veteran or a beneficiary filed a claim prior to July 1973.

Service information may also be found in various kinds of "organizational" records such as unit morning reports, payrolls and military orders on file at the NPRC or other National Archives and -Records Administration facilities.

There also is a great deal of information available in records of the State Adjutants General, and other state veterans services" offices.

By using alternate sources, NPRC may often be able to reconstruct a veteran's beginning and ending dates of active service, the character of service, rank while in service, time lost while on active duty, and periods of hospitalization. NPRC is usually able to issue NA Form 13038, "Certification of Military Service, "considered the equivalent of a Form DD-214, "Report of Separation From Active Duty," for the purpose of establishing eligibility for veterans benefits.

Necessary Information for File Reconstruction

The key to reconstructing military data is to give the NPRC enough specific information so the staff can properly search the various sources. The following information is normally required:
Full name used during military service
Branch of service
Approximate dates of service
Service number
Place of entry into service
Last Unit of assignment
Place of discharge.

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