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Thu Jul 12, 2018, 10:31 AM

A grim 45th anniversary: the fire at the National Personnel Records Center, this day in 1973

National Personnel Records Center fire

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 1618 million official military personnel records as a result of the fire.
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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.

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.

Affected records

The losses to Federal military records collection included:

80% loss to records of U.S. Army personnel discharged November 1, 1912, to January 1, 1960;
75% loss to records of U.S. Air Force personnel discharged September 25, 1947, to January 1, 1964, with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.;
Some U.S. Army Reserve personnel who performed their initial active duty for training in the late 1950s but who received final discharge as late as 1964.

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.
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Reply A grim 45th anniversary: the fire at the National Personnel Records Center, this day in 1973 (Original post)
mahatmakanejeeves Jul 2018 OP
Blue_Tires Jul 2018 #1
PoindexterOglethorpe Jul 2018 #2
Blue_Tires Jul 2018 #4
PoindexterOglethorpe Jul 2018 #5
Cracklin Charlie Jul 2018 #3
mahatmakanejeeves Jul 2018 #6
yellowdogintexas Jul 2018 #7
mulsh Jul 2018 #8

Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Thu Jul 12, 2018, 10:44 AM

1. Jesus Christ... No sprinkler systems in 1973??

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Response to Blue_Tires (Reply #1)

Thu Jul 12, 2018, 11:03 AM

2. Sprinkler systems existed, of course.

But I'll guess that local building codes either didn't require them at all, or that building was grandfathered in under an older code that didn't require them when it was built.

The real question is, to what extent are there good and sufficient back-ups for all records since then.

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Response to PoindexterOglethorpe (Reply #2)

Thu Jul 12, 2018, 11:09 AM

4. I see now they only had them in ONE part of the building(!)

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."


https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/a-look-back-military-records-center-fire-burned-for-two/article_714bfe68-859c-5068-a8c6-fd8a1285feb9.html

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Response to Blue_Tires (Reply #4)

Thu Jul 12, 2018, 11:13 AM

5. Thanks for that information.

The limited fire partitions are a lot like the bulkheads on Titanic, which did not go all the way up to the top of compartments they were built in.

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Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Thu Jul 12, 2018, 11:05 AM

3. My dad's records all burned up.

Gonna share this with my brothers.

Thanks!

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Response to Cracklin Charlie (Reply #3)

Thu Jul 12, 2018, 11:15 AM

6. His were one of 16-18 million official military personnel records that were lost.

Huge loss of information. Really devastating.

Thanks for writing.

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Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Thu Jul 12, 2018, 12:14 PM

7. My dad's WWII records were in that building.

He received a Bronze Star which was later lost ironically in a fire in my parents' home.
We asked our Congressman to request a replacement but all of the records were lost so he could not get one.

Many years later, I asked Speaker Wright if there was any way at all and he said no, even his were lost in that fire. (did you know he was a tailgunner?)

Sad sad indeed. These days records are probably scanned and digitized upon enlistment and updated until discharge.

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Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Thu Jul 12, 2018, 06:17 PM

8. On a silly but positive note if they have records, even partially burned ones you will receive photo

copies of every thing that exists and a certification that most of the record was destroyed in that fire. If all records were destroyed you get a certificate. I processed thousands of NPRC recs. when I worked on the big Asbestos litigation in the 80's. Never a dull moment with the NPRC.

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