August 27, 2014

40 years ago today: St. Louis fire destroys millions of military records

On July 12, 1973 , a massive fire broke out in a St. Louis archive center that housed most of the Army and Air Force Personnel records from World War I through the Korean War. The fire destroyed up to 18 million records of veterans that served from 1912 through 1963. Flames engulfed the 6th floor of the building as the fire burned for nearly 3 days. When it was all said and done, 43 fire departments responded to the fire. The paper records were stacked tightly inside the building that didn’t have a sprinkler system. That’s what allowed the fire to burn intensely for so long.

The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis after the 1973 fire.

The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis after the 1973 fire.

While millions of records were destroyed, some survived but remain badly damaged.

“Very, very fragile,” said National Personnel Record Center Director Bryan McGraw. “They’re damaged extensively. The most fragile records in our nation.”

McGraw says the center still gets around 200-300 requests per day for the six and a half million that survived the blaze. Experts in the preservation lab at the center continue to work to restore the documents so they can be used. McGraw says he thinks that practice will continue for a long time to come.

Fire officials never could determine what caused the fire due to the extensive damage.

“There was never a determination to the true cause,” said McGraw. “There was speculation that it was arson because there had been a history in the months leading up to the event of little nuisance arson fires. Somebody would start a fire in a trash can or in a janitor’s closest, that type of thing. But there was nothing that could be proven.”

The center continued using the building until last year, but has now a new state-of-the-art building with some serious ways to prevent a fire from destroying national records. McGraw says all the records that were lost in the fire of 1973 can never be replaced.

AUDIO: Matt Evans reports (1:02)