Disaster Strikes the National Archives: The 1978 Nitrate Vault Fire

This post was written by Andrew Smith and first posted to the National Archives Internal Collaboration Network. Andrew was a records analyst at NARA before departing for another agency.

Explosions at the Federal Center

Around noon on December 7, 1978, staff of the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) were eating lunch inside the offices of Building A of the film vaults in the Suitland, Maryland, Federal Center when they heard a “thump” sounding like a fender bender out in the parking lot. A supervisor got up to investigate the source of the sound, saw smoke filling the central hallway of the building, and yelled “fire!” Everyone quickly evacuated.  The Suitland Fire Department responded in minutes to a 911 call, but not before two more explosions.

Fearing that people were trapped inside, four firefighters were immediately ordered into the building. Other firefighters worked from outside, smashing in blowout panels and windows in order to fight the blaze. Upon determination that no one was inside, the firefighters were quickly ordered out, but as they exited, a back-draft explosion occurred, toppling an interior wall and seriously injuring two of the firefighters. A dozen firefighters would be treated for smoke inhalation. The fire department continued to battle the blaze from outside the structure, but despite their efforts, nearly all of the film vaults inside Building A ignited, destroying 12.6 million feet of Universal Pictures newsreel footage stored there.

RG 64, P 61 - General View of Fire, photo K-25
General view of fire, photo K-25 (RG 64, P 61)

The Suitland film vaults

The Suitland film vaults were actually a complex of three concrete-cinder-block bunkers, known as buildings A, B and C, located near Suitland Road at the northern end of the Federal complex. The Public Building Service (precursor to General Services Administration, or GSA) built the structures in 1945 explicitly for the purposes of storing flammable nitrate film. Each building contained 27 individual vaults that were designed to contain and localize any potential fires. NARS occupied buildings A and C; the Library of Congress was the tenant of building B. (The last of these buildings was razed in the early 2000s.)

Although NARS had safely stored nitrate films in these buildings for more than twenty-five years, in the early 1970s when the newsreel deal with Universal was being worked out it was clear to the Universal Company itself that the buildings’ systems were aging and needed updating. Universal asked GSA to update the vaults with a sprinkler system and other fire-safety improvements before NARS brought in the large collection of nitrate newsreel. GSA balked at the idea, perhaps due to cost. Universal agreed to supplement its gift and pay for a contractor to install a high-speed sprinkler system and to install new fire doors on all 27 vaults in building A. This work was completed to the satisfaction of all parties in 1973.

RG 64, P 61 - Building A after Fire, photo K-4
Building A after fire, photo K-4 (RG 64, P 61)

What was lost

In 1970, the National Archives accepted on behalf of the American people a donation from the Universal Company of 28 million feet of newsreels and outtakes covering the period between 1929 and 1967. The film depicted many important historical events. The donation was made up of 17 million feet of combustible nitrate film and 11 million feet of acetate safety film. With a limited preservation budget, NARS decided to focus first on transferring the newsreels themselves onto safety film. That work largely had been completed before the fire. The Archives was in the process of reviewing the outtakes and transferring what it deemed permanent (approximately 60 percent of the footage) to safety film when the fire occurred.

RG 64, P 61 - Debris Outside after Fire, photo K-7
Debris outside after fire, photo K-7 (RG 64, P 61)

Cause of the fire

There were actually two separate fires at the Suitland film vaults occurring about 18 months apart. A relatively smaller fire had broken out in summer of 1977 in Building C. While 800,000 feet of March of Time newsreel outtakes were destroyed, the building had worked as designed and the fire was contained to only one vault. As a consequence of this fire, NARS increased its monitoring of temperature and humidity within the vaults, as well as increased the frequency of its physical inspection of the films, so those that had become hazardous from decay could be disposed. The fire of 1977 also spurred GSA to hire contractors to update temperature and humidity control systems in the vaults.

There are competing theories as to how the second, far more devastating, fire occurred. According to a GSA investigation, the fire was likely started by contractors who were working on the building the morning of the fire. Ironically, they were making the updates that the earlier fire had made clear were needed to increase fire safety, including installing new air-conditioning, increasing the insulation, and adding humidity controls. Unfortunately, while doing their work, the contractors had disabled a third of the sprinkler heads in each of Building A’s 27 vaults, seriously hampering the fire suppression system. GSA theorized that the December 7th fire started from a spark caused by contractors’ use of power tools. Workers had used electrical drills, arc welders, and blowtorches that morning. GSA inspectors believed that the Suitland firefighters, although heroic, exacerbated the blaze by opening the fire safety doors on many of the vaults upon entering the building and not closing them in their rush to get to safety.

The Suitland Fire Department and the insurance investigator for the contractor doing the work on the vaults rejected GSA’s interpretation of events. They blamed the malfunctioning air-conditioning system within Building A for actually causing the building to heat up even though it was a cool December day. Prior to the fire, the air conditioning in building had been leaking Freon for two months. NARS staff had informed GSA that the Freon was low in the system several days before the fire and were waiting for the issue to be addressed when the fire occurred. According to the Fire Department and the contractor’s insurance investigators, the fire likely started with a single reel of film combusting in Building A’s vault number 8 when the malfunctioning air conditioning system, heating the air instead of cooling it, caused temperature and humidity in the building to reach dangerous levels.

RG 64, P 61 - Explosion from Fire at Suitland, photo K-24
Explosion from fire at Suitland, photo K-24 (RG 64, P 61)

The Suitland film vault fire in historical context

As with many catastrophes of this type, there were multiple points of failure, and one can speculate that things might have been different if one party or another had made different choices at various points along the way. It is important, however, to view this loss in the context of what has been a long-standing global struggle to preserve film heritage. Nitrate film is a very unstable and combustible medium, and there have been scores of film vault fires around the world that have resulted in the loss of important films. Many of the motion picture studios, including RKO, Universal, and Warner Brothers, have had devastating vault fires. Additionally, several other cultural institutions charged with the preservation of film have had large nitrate fires including Cinematheque Francaise, National Film Board of Canada, George Eastman House, and Museum of Modern Art. Still other institutions have handled the dangers of storing nitrate by simply disposing of important collections. Only a small fraction of films from the silent period survive at all. This is, in part, because of the nitrate storage issues but also because the films were not valued and for many years motion picture companies recycled prints for their silver nitrate.

The partnership Universal struck with NARS was a good faith effort to preserve and make available a large amount of historically significant but volatile material. Thanks to Universal’s decision to turn their newsreel collection over to the American people, the Archives’ willingness to take on the risks, and the hard work of a generation of Archives’ employees, we have hundreds of Universal newsreels extant. The Universal Newsreels and outtakes are one of the most heavily-used collections in the motion picture holdings of the National Archives.

RG 64, P 61 - Employees Watch Fire, photo K-26
Employees watch fire, photo K-26 (RG 64 P61)

Sources:

All the details of the fire and subsequent investigations are from: “National Archives and Records Service Film-Vault Fire at Suitland, MD. Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations House of Representatives Ninety-Sixth Congress First Session-June 19 AND 21, 1979.” The text of the hearing was published by GPO and is available in its entirety online.

Photographs from RG 64, Records Relating to the Nitrate Film Vault Fire at Suitland, Maryland (NAID 7582461)

For more on the Universal News collection at the National Archives, see “A Moving Image Newspaper: Universal Newsreels at the National Archives,” and the many other posts that we have previously published on the Unwritten Record.

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