Still Triaging After All These Years: Preservation and Access of the Burned Files

Today’s post was written by Sara Holmes, conservator at the National Archives in St. Louis

On July 12, 1973, a massive fire broke out on the sixth floor of the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC.) After 5 days, and 381 men, the 10-7 for out-of-service was called over the emergency dispatcher’s radios. With the fire declared “out” emergency vehicles, first responders, and others who had supported their efforts, like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, dispersed. Ultimately the fire destroyed 16-18 million military personnel files, but as staff first began to work among the remains of the sixth floor they realized there were millions of records that had survived and were recoverable. The recovery phase that began with removing the over six million soggy, charred, and molding records from the top floor and getting them dried out took months of hard work and the help of experts, such as conservator Peter Waters

Fifty years later, a group of specially trained staff still carries on the work of recovery from the fire by performing triage-based treatment on the approximately 6.5 million rescued records from the fire. Much has changed over the half-century as staff have honed new techniques and adopted new technologies to improve the health and safety of employees doing the work, and the efficiency of working through the records. Yet one thing remains constant—the mission to make the surviving records available to those who have requested them.

The initial post-fire work of salvaging the records required both innovation and heavy lifting. Records had to be cleared from the top floor of the damaged building, and human chains moved slowly, box by box. Boom cranes were brought in, and backhoes and front loaders were moved up to scoop up the records. A tent city sprang up in the parking lot, and the cafeteria building was used to set up for a team to return to the work of responding to record requests alongside the salvage work taking place outside.

rows of records in milk crates sit outside records center building
A small, but significant innovation in salvaging records from the fire in 1973 was the use of plastic milk crates for wet, damaged records. The crates are standard use still today for archives and libraries responding to damaged paper and books.

Pushed to the limit, staff soon adapted the use of plastic milk crates for holding and transporting the wet paper, an innovation that remains a common practice today. Conservation experts came to St. Louis to help. A breakthrough occurred when workers learned that nearby McDonnell Douglas Aircraft had vacuum chambers and were willing to test them out on large batches of the wet, salvaged paper. With refinement, the first-ever mass drying treatment for paper was undertaken, though it still took months of work to dry out the millions of records salvaged.

The mold that grew so rapidly 50 years ago has gone dormant with the records now held in a controlled, cool environment. Health and safety precautions are paramount, and staff working with records use respiratory protection. The disposable respirators previously used have now given way to Controlled Air-Purifying Respirators (CAPRs), that fit over the head of staff working on mold remediation. Nitrile gloves protect hands from touching the mold. Fume hoods and HEPA vacuums help staff work to remediate the mold from each page while directing the loose mold spores safely away.

paper records partially burned and curled from fire and water
Closeup of a record damaged from water and mold growth from the 1973 fire, recently pulled for treatment in 2023. (Photo by Sean Derrick for the National Archives, June 2023)

Triage remains a daily activity for the Preservation Programs staff in St. Louis. Each technician is well versed in assessing the condition of a record and determining what treatment is necessary to get a record request fulfilled as quickly as possible. Records with minimal damage are quickly released to correspondence technicians to fulfill requests. The addition of overhead scanners has increased the ability to rapidly respond to requests while requiring minimal treatment.

person facing away from camera, their hands are under a clear hood, treating records
A Preservation Technician uses the fume hood to safely work on remediating mold from a record damaged in the 1973 fire. (Photo by Sean Derrick for the National Archives, June 2023)

However, some records are distorted, excessively torn, burned to the point of illegibility, or so fragile that handling must be severely limited, requiring more time to gain access to the information on the pages. These are the records that demand the finest hand skills to tease apart pages, humidify and flatten, and even mend the fragments and tears back together.

people stand around a table with records laid out
Members of the Records Emergency Response work on a training exercise in a mock emergency for wet records on the day of the 50th anniversary of the fire. Training focuses on how to identify priorities in treating damaged records and understand how to safely work with fragile, wet paper. (Photo by Sara Holmes)

Treating records is not the only way to protect the survivors from the great fire. All record bays are monitored for temperature, relative humidity, and any insect activity, ensuring that preventable damage is avoided and that the paper will have the longest possible lifespan. Staff also act proactively and seek to be prepared for emergencies and even another large-scale disaster. A plan for responding to record emergencies is reviewed and updated annually. A special team of staff members drawn from various departments of the NPRC is trained to quickly transport and treat damaged records whenever needed.

The fire and its aftermath has taught preservation staff at the National Archives some difficult lessons that continue to inform and improve our work in many areas, from our specifications for storage standards, proactive response plans, to our production-based treatment methods. Perhaps most importantly, the spirit of innovation is carried on to the present as preservation staff continue to seek out and adapt new technologies such as digitization strategies which have reduced the response times for requests while still accommodating for special handling and care needed for these damaged records. Every day at work continues to bring more progress in making these salvaged records safely accessible.

October is American Archives Month!

3 thoughts on “Still Triaging After All These Years: Preservation and Access of the Burned Files

  1. I commend your painstaking work to retrieve the many records that you all have been retrieving the countless records that were thought to be lost forever.
    Thank you for your dedication.

  2. Just reading the above article, you can just imagine the smell, the water damaged pages and the mold. Has anyone ever found out just what caused the fire?

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