Disaster Response: The 1981 Economics Building Fire

A Christmas Eve, 1981 fire ravaged the historic Economics Building, destroying or damaging many valuable books and manuscripts. Built in 1856 as the Chemical Laboratory, it had been home to the Economics Department since 1909. The department's Leo Scharfman Library was a total loss. Many fire and water damaged books and documents were frozen in the University Food Service food locker, then freeze dried in vacuum chambers. A UM employee, who had been fired shortly before the blaze, was later charged with arson.

When head conservator Jim Craven was called to the scene he brought with him the Bentley Historical Library's disaster plan. The university official in charge used the library's plan as the outline for saving the books and documents. Jim Craven was actively involved in the freeze-drying process.

Contract salvage workers sorting and packing materials. Economics professors were on hand to identify their material.

Materials packed in milk crates, labeled and ready for freeze-drying - wet/frozen, dirty, crumpled and smelly.

They come out dry, crumpled and smelly.

Vacuum chamber at UM Aerospace Engineering. The facility had been identified in 1976 by Ann Flowers as a potential resource in preparing the Disaster Plan for the Bentley Library. This chamber was used in a test of freeze-drying water damaged materials - a fairly new idea at the time.

The Bendix Chamber on North Campus, designed originally for testing the Moon Rover, was the largest vacuum chamber used for freeze-drying Economics Building materials. Some material was also sent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for freeze-drying.