TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A fire in another part of the country that destroyed millions of military documents continues to cause problems for some veterans whose records were either burned or destroyed by water used to fight the blaze.
The National Personnel Records Center was a six-floor, 70-acre facility outside St. Louis that contained more than 50 million records dating back to 1912.
But on an early morning on July 12, 1973, a fire started somewhere in the building and was not detected until smoke was spewing out.
“We got a major fire on the 6th floor,” a firefighter said during a frantic call to the station. “Major.”
It would burn out of control for almost an entire day.
“You want another ladder truck,” a dispatcher said.
“We’re going to need at least one and you better figure on two,” the firefighter said. “About half the building is gone.”
Over 80 percent of the records for Army personnel discharged from Nov. 1, 1912, to January 1, 1960 were destroyed. Roughly 75 percent of the Air Force records for personnel discharged from Sept. 25, 1947, to Jan. 1, 1964, were also damaged.
Between 16 to 18 million records were burned, scorched, or ruined by the water poured into the building to put out the blaze.
Historian Jen Rickards, who lives in the St. Louis area, produced a documentary about the fire that truly hit close to home for her family.
Her father-in-law worked at the records center and was there only hours after the fire started.
“He was just in shock,” Rickards said. “Knowing that, oh my gosh, and all of the documents that are in there that really are not housed anywhere else and going up in flames.”
Korean War veteran Baldomaro Vega is one of several Tampa Bay veterans who have told 8 On Your Side that their VA benefit claims were impacted by documents destroyed in the fire.
Vega’s nephew Greg Taylor tried to help him gather backup documents, but time ran out when Vega died last month.
“They always talk about holding everybody accountable,” Taylor said. “Well, why don’t they hold themselves accountable for the fire because that’s on them.”
Rickards’ father also lost records in the fire but was able to replace the needed documents for his benefits claim. His daughter said he has helped other veterans impacted by the fire locate copies of records.
“If he wouldn’t have kept all of those papers he would’ve been sunk,” Rickards said. “It would’ve been very difficult for him to get the benefits that he needed.”
The exact cause of the fire was never nailed down, although one investigation pointed toward a possible electrical short in the building.
The VA does have a process to reconstruct records that were lost in the fire, but the success rate depends on how much information the veteran can provide.
“Please give us as much information as you can about your assignments during service, including any of these that apply to you,” the VA website advises.
Certified “buddy” statements or affidavits from fellow service members, military accident reports, letters and photographs can all be useful in reconstructing records, according to the VA.
In Vega’s case, he was missing his serial number which stalled his claim.