Unexplained Mystery: What started the 1973 U.S. National Archives Fire?



The Watergate scandal was a 1970s United States political event. It began with the arrest of five men for breaking and entering into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972. The scandal directly led to the resignation of the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, on August 9, 1974. Nixon is the first and only U.S. President to resign. Watergate also resulted in the indictment, trial, conviction and incarceration of Nixon administration officials. On July 12, 1973, the National Personnel Records Center fire occurred in Overland, Missouri, which is a suburb of St. Louis. The event marked a severe blow to the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States. Approximately 16-18 million official military personnel records were lost as a result of the fire.

The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) was created in 1956 as the result of a series of mergers. In 1956, the construction cost on the structure was $12.5 million, $101 million in today’s dollars, an economical $10.15 per square foot ($110.51 per square meter). However, the builders did not include firewalls or other fire-stopping material. The entire facility holding millions of irreplaceable records lacked heat or smoke detectors to automatically report fire or a sprinkler system to extinguish fire. The 1973 fire destroyed the entire 6th floor of the NPRC, including millions of files documenting U.S. Army and Air Force personnel discharges. The huge collection of documents on the 6th floor did not have an index, making it impossible to determine what was lost.

Millions of records were on loan to the NPRC at the time of the fire. On the morning of the National Archives Fire, a very small number of U.S. Navy, United States Coast Guard, and U.S. Marine Corps records were out of their normal filing area being worked on as active requests by employees of the National Archives and Records Administration who maintained their offices on the 6th floor of the building. When the NPRC fire began, these Navy and Marine Corps records were caught in the section of the building which experienced the most damage, but the circumstances surrounding the files was ruled to have been ordinary. None of the U.S. national records that were destroyed in the fire had duplicate copies made, nor had they been copied to microfilm.

The exact cause of the fire was never fully determined. An investigation in 1975, two-years after the occurrence, revealed that the floor where the fire started had been under extreme temperature with little or no ventilation. It was speculated that air pressure on the floor had reached such a level that, combined with the very high temperatures in the enclosed space, the brittle and dry records began to spontaneously combust. The investigation also did not rule out embers of cigarettes, which were present in several trash cans. The timing of the fire and the lackluster investigation has led to speculation about the real cause. One thing is for sure, a large portion of recorded U.S. history was lost in the NPRC fire of 1973.