In 1973, a fire in St. Louis changed American history — by destroying it
On July 12, 1973, a fire whose cause remains unknown tore through the sixth floor of the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Multiple fire departments converged on the blaze. Inside, the heat was so intense that firefighters chose to retreat as their masks began melting to their faces.
The building was larger than some city blocks, yet its vast holding areas lacked alarm and sprinkler systems. The building burned for 22 hours, destroying an estimated 16 million to 18 million records — and annihilating 80% of the Army’s personnel files dating to 1912 to 1960.
“It's really important for people to understand that the National Archives didn't just give up after the fire and say, ‘Well, those records are burned, they don’t exist anymore,’” Jessie Kratz, historian of the National Archives, told St. Louis on the Air.
Kratz sees the anniversary as a moment of reflection for the agency.
“Since the fire, staff has undertaken a massive amount of work to make sure these veterans' records are available, and now we're making sure the extent of that work is captured and shared.”
To mark the fire’s 50th anniversary, Kratz and her team reached out to former employees and firefighters who witnessed the disaster in 1973. The agency has created a dedicated web page to commemorate the fire, including a collection of oral histories, historic photos and a guide for requesting a veteran’s records.
The work to preserve and reconstruct the burned records continues today, a half-century after the fire was extinguished.
The fire altered the course of the National Archives. Over subsequent decades, the government studied the disaster and designed new policies in the hope of avoiding another one. The efforts included the construction of a $115 million facility in north St. Louis County near Spanish Lake, which opened in 2011.
But even in the state-of-the-art building, the 1973 fire casts a shadow.
“Everybody that works at that facility still deals with the fire every single day,” said archives specialist Eric Kilgore. “The records that survived the fire, in large part, are in cold storage in that facility in the same condition that they were taken out of the building in 1973.”
Some records were only partially burned. But millions of records, including from both World Wars, were permanently destroyed either by fire, water or mold.
“McDonnell Douglas actually brought in a freight car to the tracks behind the facility and started freeze-drying records to try and kill, or at least prevent, that mold growth,” Kilgore said. “The entire sixth floor was a complete loss and doesn't exist today. … And eventually what you saw over time was all of those records, or portions of records, that were able to be recovered out of the building were meticulously cataloged. So at this point today, and soon after, they knew what they had.
“But they didn't know what they didn't have,” he added.
Even in cases where a record was destroyed, archivists can use alternate sets of documents — Kilgore often uses Selective Service records, registration cards, pay vouchers and unit reports — to construct a partial picture of a service member’s record. In some cases, confirming a veteran’s service is the only thing standing between a person and medical care, benefits and military honors.
For Killgore, finding and reconstructing the records lost in 1973 isn’t just a service to veterans today, but to the public of the future.
“The National Archives holds records back to the Revolutionary War,” he noted. “We owe it to the American public to make those records available to the best of our ability.”
To hear more about the 1973 fire at the National Archives, including this reporter’s search for his grandfather’s burned military records, and an in-depth discussion of the fire itself with St. Louis County fire Captain Dave Dubowski, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast or by clicking the play button below.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.