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COLUMBIA — A malfunctioning sprinkler head reduced some historical documents kept by the Missouri State Historical Society to waterlogged paper and soggy cardboard

Fire sprinkler soaks Missouri State Historical Society documents

Thursday, October 1, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
BY Chelsea Deptula
COLUMBIA — A malfunctioning sprinkler head reduced some historical documents kept by the Missouri State Historical Society to waterlogged paper and soggy cardboard Wednesday evening.

Columbia firefighters arrived at Ellis Library after receiving a report of a fire alarm sounding in the library. The crews found the source of the alarm to be an activated sprinkler head in a storage room used by the historical society to hold documents. The society is based in the lower level of the library.

“There was no fire,” Capt. Eric Hartman said. “It was some sort of mechanical failure in the head, which did cause water discharge. There are a significant number of historical documents and books that are water-soaked.”

Firefighters shut off the sprinkler head and began cleaning the storage room. Historical society staff rushed to the site and began restoration work on the documents, which included Missouri government records and reports from state auditors.

“In some cases, they may not be salvageable,” Executive Director Gary Kremer said. “We aren’t certain yet, but many of these may be duplicate copies. If that’s the case, it’s still not good because these are permanent records, and if you only have one or two copies of something, forever is a long time.”

While the historical society staff sorted through what could be saved and what could not, fans and dehumidifiers were used to remove moisture from the air.

Associate Director Lynn Wolf Gentzler was the first person notified when the alarms began going off.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I put on clothes I knew I could work in. We came down to see what happened, and then began calling staff members to come in and help.”

Wolf Gentzler said she does not know exactly how long it will take to clean up the soaked documents.

“It’ll take several days because we’ll have to go through things that are slightly damp and monitor the humidity and make sure there is no mold growth,” she said. “There are a variety of things that will have to be done after the initial response.”

Because of the historical nature of the documents, it’s impossible to put a dollar amount on the damage that has been caused at this point, Hartman said.

In order to restore some of the damp papers, the staff of the historical society will be freezing and drying the documents.

Hartman said about three shelves of books and documents were soaked. No one was in the room when the sprinkler head was triggered.

Kremer said the damage could have been worse, but he’s concerned about a repeat of the incident.

“If the same system of sprinklers is throughout the facility, there are rooms — for example our art gallery — has tens of millions of dollars of artwork in it,” Kremer said. “If the sprinklers were to malfunction there, that would be a catastrophe.”

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