Saturday, August 3, 2013

Fire Archaeology: Still Salvaging After All These Years

The stories of most major fires concentrate on the immediate impact; the deaths and injuries which resulted.  Just over 40 years ago, a fire occurred which caused no deaths or serious injuries, the impact from which is still being felt.  Just after midnight on July 12, 1973, fire broke out on the sixth floor of the National Personnel Records Center in Overland, Missouri.   

Construction work on this building to hold military service records was completed in 1956.  When the original studies were conducted during the design phase, conflicting advice was received from archivists and personnel at other government records retention facilities.  Some strongly recommended the inclusion of automatic sprinklers and others argued against.  Not surprisingly, since we are talking about this fire forty years later, the anti-sprinkler forces won.  Storage of paper records in folders and boxes packed on metal shelves and file cabinets filled the building—a massive fire load.   

The fire response exceeded 6 alarms.  The interior attack was abandoned at 3:15 AM that morning due to deteriorating conditions, but the exterior attack continued for days.  On the 14th, firefighters re-entered the building to begin final extinguishment and overhaul on the sixth floor; a task complicated by partial structural collapse of the roof.  By the 16th of July, a single company remained on scene.  

Following fire extinguishment began a salvage operation which continues even today.  Computer tapes and microfilm records were among the early transfers to an off-site facility.  All six floors of the building experienced substantial water damage, and the recovery of water soaked records was a massive operation.  Wet records were re-boxed and the escalator railings used as a slide to move them to the ground floor for transport.  Setting up a temporary facility at the nearby Civilian Personnel Records Center, plastic milk crates, eventually 30,000 of them, were used for open shelf drying, but a better solution was on the horizon. 

A vacuum drying chamber was located at the McDonnell Douglas Aircraft plant in St. Louis.  The chamber was originally constructed for space simulation as part of the Apollo moon program.  Once archivists confirmed the technology worked, two additional chambers at the Sandusky, Ohio NASA facility were located and used as well.  Wet records were placed in the plastic milk crates, which were stacked nine high on wood pallets, and the records loaded into the chamber, which was sealed.  Air was evacuated from the chamber and the temperature lowered to freezing.  Hot dry air was then introduced until the wetted materials reach 50 degrees F.  Depending upon how wet the material was, multiple cycles could be needed to dry the records.  With a single chamber capable of holding 2,000 milk crates, nearly eight tons or 2000 gallons of water could be removed during a run.   

The charred and burned materials recoverable from the sixth floor created another challenge.  Luckily, this material was not disposed of following the fire, but stored as “B” files, as improvements in technology have made the information from some of these materials usable again.  Today a team of thirty uses the latest restoration techniques to recover information from these documents. Working in latex gloves, this group represents an archival CSI for documents; cleaning mold and debris and utilizing digital technology, scanners, and specialized software, some information from burned sections can be revealed and recovered.  

This information remains important.  Requests are received from veteran’s families for information needed to obtain various programmatic government benefits along with on-going work by genealogists and historians.  The meticulous work the recovery team does, like archaeologists unearthing an ancient village filled with information, is critical in helping these servicemen.   

Sprinkler protection became an important component for all such government facilities following this fire; a lesson learned like many others, through disaster.  While we will likely never know how many records were lost in the fire, the cause of which remains undetermined, that recovery and restoration continues forty years later is nothing short of miraculous. 


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