At military records center, recovery from 1973 fire continues

Documents damaged in the 1973 fire are still being restored.


By STEVE GIEGERICH | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: January 30, 2012

NORTH ST. LOUIS COUNTY — Debra Griffith didn't know where to turn when her father, a Korean War veteran with a failing heart, asked to be buried at a military cemetery near his boyhood home in Indiana.

With her parents long divorced and the family scattered across the country, Griffith had no clue where to find the records attesting to Lewis Lower's military service — or whether they even existed.

She turned the problem over to her husband, who learned of another hitch in granting Lower's final request upon contacting the National Personnel Records Center in north St. Louis County. The file may have been among the millions destroyed 39 years ago in a fire that burned for two days through the sixth floor of the building in Overland the center once occupied.

The near-impossible task of restoring the charred documents that survived continues to this day — a labor of love and duty for archivists either too young to remember or, in some cases, not even born when a significant chunk of America's past went up in smoke.

"It's as much as being part of history as I can be," said archivist Debbie Cribbs, who was five years away from drawing her first breath when the first alarm sounded in the wee hours of July 12, 1973. "It's as close as we're ever going to get to experience it."

The past unfolds daily for the dozen archivists at the recently opened $115 million National Personnel Records Center on Dunn Road in North County, where professional movers are gradually relocating documents from the Page Avenue facility that had housed the archives since 1956.

What transpires in the warren of offices, cubicles and laboratories on the third floor is not a make-work project designed to occupy the time of government bureaucrats. It's an assignment that often asks the archival team to fill in the blanks for loved ones, who are filled with questions about military lives rarely addressed by the Greatest Generation in the years following their return from Europe or the South Pacific. In other instances, the requests arrive with the imperative to locate the documentation qualifying retired military personnel for government benefits and veterans' services.

Archives technician Donna Judd keeps a letter-filled orange folder within reach of the workspace where a recent Tuesday afternoon found her dusting the charred edges off files made brittle by age and smoke.

The letters are a testament to the painstaking attention to detail Judd has exhibited in the nine years she's been assigned to the colloquial "B file" unit.

Last year, the center fielded 1.5 million requests for documents — requests that demand extracting and delivering accurate information from records charred by fire, soaked with water and often crusted with mold.

Judd pulled one payoff for her time and effort from the orange folder: a 2003 letter written on behalf of a family awarded a World War II medal posthumously.

"PFC Johnson, although now deceased, was finally given the recognition he so justly deserved," the letter reads. "And his daughter can now finally close this chapter in her father's life."

On that July week 39 years ago, the front-end loader operators took over where firefighters from departments across the St. Louis area left off. One payload at a time, they deposited in Dumpsters what was left of military records dating from about the end of World War II through Korea.

The center employees undertook the next phase, rescuing every salvageable, identifiable scrap they could find.

"There was a concerted effort to save anything that was still a piece of paper," said preservation officer Marta G. O'Neill. "They weren't cavalier about it."

Six and a half million documents in one form or another were ultimately recovered; 18 million perished forever.

The files are stored at the new facility in a climate-controlled warehouse with a constant temperature of about 35 degrees and with a relative humidity that never dips below 40 percent.

When the summons for a document is delivered from a family or government official, the files move from the warehouse to the archivists on the third floor.

The work can be tedious. With time being their enemy as they plowed through Dumpsters after the 1973 fire, agency employees could not devote any time to cataloguing the debris.

Documents containing the records of service personnel with common names wound up in single files which, four decades later, create havoc for archivists trying to determine which James Smith, for instance, is the James Smith connected to a specific request.

"It's like a treasure hunt, it really is," said archivist Susie Davis, likening the process of piecing together, disinfecting and preserving the documents to triage.

The most severely damaged of the documents eventually find their way to a laboratory where the files are nursed into comprehensible form by technology that didn't even exist in 1973.

Even the third floor employees not instinctively drawn to history, like Judd, are eventually enraptured by the stories that unfold in every scrap of paper that passes through their hands.

Daria Labinsky feels the connection more than most: her father served and an uncle died in World War II.

"Grains of sand," she calls the narratives that trickle through her workspace day in and day out.

Sometimes, the grains of sand can feel like an insurmountable dune.

"People just don't know the scope of what happens when millions of records are burned," said Cribbs. "It would take more than one person's lifetime to repair what happened. So we just do what we can."

The challenge issued by Debra Griffith at the dawn of 2012 was to ascertain that a 20-year-old from Indiana had in fact gone to Korea on behalf of his country during the height of the Cold War.

With 18 million documents from that era having long since gone up in smoke, the chances of confirmation were at best remote. Griffith, expecting nothing, began broaching alternative burial sites with her father.

Then, 10 days after her husband contacted the personnel center, a response came.

The file for Army Cpl. Lewis Lower, who served in Korea from 1953-55, had been located.

A charred facsimile of the discharge papers were dispatched posthaste to Debra Griffith's home in Herndon, Va.

This past Wednesday, Lewis Lower, 78, died in a Florida hospital.

Burial, with full military honors, will occur this week at Crown Hill National Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Military records in storage at the National Archives site in Missouri.