Almost a Records Breaker: National archives were endangered when a fire destroyed a factory next door. By S.A. Reid and Rochelle Carter Atlanta Journa-Constitution March 29, 2000 A fire that destroyed an East Point pallet factory on Tuesday jeopardized millions of artifacts, historical documents and federal records stored next door at the National Archives and Records Administration Center. East Point firefighters said they could not save L&R Pallet Inc., located at 2316 Lawrence St. Flames were shooting through the roof when they arrived about 11 a.m., Capt. Randy Coggins said. To keep the roaring flames away from the records center, firefighters focused their hoses primarily on the east side of the burning factory, adjacent to the archives. Only barbed wire fencing and the firefighters armed with hoses separated the archives from the sweeping flames. The fire got so hot that the heat twisted the factory's steel support beams, Coggins said. "When this (fire) was going at its hottest point, you had a blow torch on that building," Coggins said of the archives. "What we've got in there we can't replace." Archive officials said the facility --- which houses numerous irreplaceable documents including court and census papers dating back to the 1700s, Internal Revenue Service tax returns and 24 million draft cards from World War I --- is equipped with a sprinkler system that would have been activated in case of fire. Regional NARA Administrator James J. McSweeney described his staff's response as "controlled panic." "We're very concerned and passionate about our holdings," McSweeney said, "so every time there's a mention of fire, everybody's heart rate goes up." The center has records of agencies including the Tennessee Valley Authority, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NASA, and the Kennedy and Marshall space centers. Documents on the Tuskegee Institute's syphilis study and court papers from civil rights cases involving the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks also are housed there. The building is open to the public to research family histories. No damage was found in the center, but smoke from the fire next door did make its way inside, officials said. Employees were evacuated but are expected to return today. The regional archives center was opened in Atlanta in 1951 and moved to its present site in East Point in 1954. The factory fire was especially challenging for firefighters, Coggins said. The 50,000-square-foot brick building was filled floor-to-ceiling with wooden pallets. Most of the factory's windows were broken years ago, giving eastward breezes with 40-mph wind gusts easy access to the burning wood. In addition, the wind directed flames toward the archives center, Coggins said. The pallet factory is the former site of the Prestolite Battery Division of Eltra Corp. The location is a state environmental Superfund site. In 1994, it made the federal Environmental Protection Agency's list of 279 worst hazardous waste sites across Georgia because of contamination from battery acids and other pollutants that were cleaned up about five years ago, said Jennifer Hicks, a state Environmental Protection Division environmental emergency specialist. Soil monitoring is ongoing, Hicks said. The EPA and EPD tested water runoff and air quality during the fire, but found no toxins that would pose a health threat after several neighboring residents called the agencies, Hicks said. "We're just trying to appease the residents and make them feel safe that there is no threat," Hicks said. Rusty Eakin, 43, who has done odd jobs at the business, was fearful that he might have accidently sparked the blaze while cutting iron pipes with a chain saw. The building was burning when he came back from lunch. He had been given permission by the business owner to trim pipe and sell it for scrap iron. His expected take: $20 or $30. "I'm as sorry as I can be," Eakin said, "but I was careful as I could be." The fire was under control by 1:45 p.m., but firefighters were expected to remain on site for a day or two to put out smoldering embers.