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millions of artifacts, historical documents and federal records stored next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.