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Decades Later, Families Still Seek Answers After Devastating Fire Destroys Veterans’ Records

by Ryan Lee
3 comments
veterans' records

Even after 50 years, the harrowing memories of a catastrophic fire at the Military Personnel Records Center continue to haunt Mike Buttery. The sight of black smoke billowing from the massive six-story building, firefighters battling the inferno, and bits of paper floating through the air are etched in his mind. As a janitor at the center, Buttery was acutely aware of the loss suffered by countless veterans whose records were being consumed. The fire, which occurred on July 12, 1973, in Overland, Missouri, resulted in the destruction of an estimated 16 to 18 million personnel files, making it the largest single-record loss in U.S. history.

The aftermath of the fire has had far-reaching implications, with veterans and their families having to fight tirelessly for their benefits, medals, and recognition. The impact of the fire is still felt today as families struggle to document the accomplishments and sacrifices of their loved ones or arrange full military honors for burials. Additionally, conspiracy theories surrounding the incident persist, with some individuals searching for evidence of a sinister plot behind the tragedy that was officially attributed to the careless act of a single individual.

Above all, the event highlights the monumental and ongoing effort to recover the lost history that seemed irretrievable at the time.

If there was one thing the records center achieved, it was inspiring awe in those who entered its premises. Walter W. Stender and Evans Walker, from the Federal Records Centers, described the building’s immense size and grandeur in a 1974 article. Standing on a sprawling seventy-acre site in Overland, the 728-foot-long, 282-foot-wide, six-story structure made a lasting impression with its vast scale. From the outside, it presented a stoic facade of glass and aluminum.

Originally constructed for the Department of Defense in 1956, the facility later came under the jurisdiction of the National Archives and Records Service, then part of the General Services Administration. By the time of the fire, it had become the National Personnel Records Center, merging the military and civilian records centers.

Stender and Walker noted that while the building’s design was meticulously planned, it did not function effectively as a records center. Despite some sprinklers on the lower floors, the absence of firewalls and sprinklers in the stacks made it susceptible to devastating fires. A study conducted in 1972 had already highlighted these concerns, identifying the storage containers, lack of overhead sprinklers, and fluctuating employee hours as high-risk factors. Sadly, less than a year later, the predictions proved accurate, and the center was ill-prepared to combat the fire.

Witnesses like Buttery and Bill Elmore, another janitor, recall the combustible conditions within the building. Packed in cardboard boxes on metal shelves, the records were a tinderbox waiting to ignite. When the fire broke out, it spread with alarming speed, overwhelming the firefighting efforts.

The fire burned for days, finally being declared extinguished on July 16. The intense heat had caused steel-reinforced concrete columns to buckle, and the collapsed roof slab was only supported by file cabinets. Extensive amounts of water were used, leading to the need to create drainage holes in the outer walls. Bulldozers were even brought in to clear away the remains of the top floor, which had partially collapsed.

Determining the cause of the fire proved challenging. While arson was suspected due to previous incidents, an investigation yielded inconclusive results. The last known individual on the sixth floor was janitor John Staufenbiel, who reported no signs of smoke or fire at 12:05 a.m. that fateful night. After considering various theories and conducting interviews, it was ultimately determined that a custodian, who had admitted to smoking on the sixth floor, might have inadvertently caused the fire. However, proving intent was difficult, and a federal grand jury declined to indict him.

The fire’s devastating consequences were far-reaching, affecting millions of Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs). These files contained comprehensive records of veterans’ service, including duty stations, awards, promotions, and disciplinary actions. They were crucial for veterans seeking employment, medical benefits, insurance, or government loans. The loss of records was particularly severe for the Army and Air Force, with approximately 80% of Army personnel files for those discharged between 1912 and 1960 destroyed, and an estimated 75% of Air Force personnel files for those discharged between 1947 and 1964 lost.

The fire also ravaged the VIP vault, which housed the records of prominent individuals, ranging from presidents and actors to criminals and military mascots. The intense heat transformed the contents into charred remnants, with almost complete loss of flexibility. Out of the records stored in the vault, 1,694 were destroyed or damaged.

Efforts to reconstruct the lost records have been ongoing, with technicians using advanced techniques to reveal the information hidden beneath the charred pages. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) has partially reconstructed nearly 5.5 million records to date. However, the task remains challenging, particularly for historians and genealogists seeking to piece together the histories of veterans whose records were lost. The fire has been a significant obstacle to overcome, leaving countless families yearning for answers, closure, and peace.

While the official investigation concluded that the cause of the fire could not be determined, some theories and suspicions persist. Speculations range from deliberate arson to government cover-ups. However, there is no definitive evidence to support these claims, and the consensus remains that the fire was most likely an accident.

In the years following the fire, improvements in records management, storage, and restoration have been implemented. Vacuum-drying methods were developed to salvage water-damaged records, and safety standards were established to prevent future catastrophes. The digitization of paper records and redundant backup procedures have been employed to ensure the preservation of military records. Under an agreement with the Department of Defense, all Official Military Personnel Files will eventually be transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and will be permanently preserved.

Although the scars of the fire still linger, the NPRC has made significant progress in recovering and reconstructing lost records. The dedication of a team of professionals continues to bring closure and benefits to veterans and their families. The fire that ravaged the records center has led to improvements in record preservation and serves as a reminder of the importance of safeguarding the nation’s historical legacy.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about veterans’ records

Q: What was the extent of the damage caused by the fire at the Military Personnel Records Center?

A: The fire at the Military Personnel Records Center resulted in the destruction of an estimated 16 to 18 million personnel files. It is believed to be the largest single-record loss in U.S. history.

Q: How did the fire impact veterans and their families?

A: The fire had significant implications for veterans and their families. Many veterans had to fight for their benefits, medals, and recognition all over again. Families faced challenges in documenting their loved ones’ achievements and sacrifices, as well as arranging full military honors for burials.

Q: What types of records were lost in the fire?

A: The fire consumed Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) that served as comprehensive records of veterans’ service. These files contained information about duty stations, awards, promotions, disciplinary actions, and other relevant details. They were crucial for veterans seeking various benefits and assistance.

Q: Has there been any progress in recovering the lost records?

A: Yes, efforts have been made to reconstruct the lost records. Technicians have employed advanced techniques to reveal the information hidden beneath the charred pages. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) has partially reconstructed nearly 5.5 million records to date.

Q: Are there any conspiracy theories surrounding the fire?

A: Yes, there have been conspiracy theories suggesting deliberate arson or government cover-ups. However, the official investigation concluded that the cause of the fire could not be determined, and there is no definitive evidence to support these claims.

Q: How has record preservation improved since the fire?

A: Significant improvements have been made in records management, storage, and restoration. Vacuum-drying methods were developed to salvage water-damaged records, and safety standards were established. The digitization of paper records and redundant backup procedures have been implemented to ensure the preservation of military records.

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3 comments

JaneDoe July 11, 2023 - 10:43 pm

omg! can’t believe this fire destroyed millions of vets records. like, how does that even happen? so much history lost. and those poor families, still trying to piece things together. hope they get the recognition they deserve. kudos to the team reconstructing the files!

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John84 July 12, 2023 - 12:54 am

wow, this is a tragic story! a fire destroys all those vets records. so sad. they had to fight for benefits, medals, & recogntion all over again. it’s good they could recover some records, but imagine the families who still seek answers. heartbreaking.

Reply
VeteranTom July 12, 2023 - 2:37 pm

as a vet myself, this hits close to home. my heart goes out to all those affected by the fire. losing your records, your service history, it’s like losing a piece of yourself. glad to hear they’re making progress in reconstructing the files. never forget our sacrifices!

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