While the main floor of the Aberdeen Museum of History appears to be badly charred by Saturday’s fire, there is hope that a significant amount of the historical documents and photos in the basement archives could be restored.
On Tuesday afternoon, Dean Winkle, who owns ServPro of Grays Harbor & Pacific Counties, walked out of the museum carrying a dirt-speckled, watermarked photograph. It happened to be from his 1980 Aberdeen High School class and like many of the other photos and documents from the basement, it’s intact.
ServePro is a business that does salvage work after disasters such as the Armory fire. “It’s surreal that our business was called to do this, and that I’m finding photos of me like this,” said Winkle.
At around 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, firefighters from multiple agencies responded to the fire in the Armory Building. It spread through most of the building, and collapsed a majority of the roof. It caused serious damage to the museum and other organizations located inside like the Coastal Community Action Program, the Senior Center, and the Grays Harbor Genealogical Society research library.
Although the main and second floors might not have much left to salvage, the basement archives primarily received water damage only, and not much was burned. These archives contain thousands of historic documents that go back to the city’s founding days, and even before that.
While they may not be in pristine condition, the city is working with agencies that have the tools and facilities to restore this collection of text documents, photos and other artifacts. The recovery efforts took up pretty much all of Tuesday and were to continue overnight.
The City of Aberdeen retained ServPro to recover the paper documents. It will take them to their facility in Puyallup to freeze dry them. In addition, Secretary of State Kim Wyman sent Washington State Archivist Steve Excell and about a half-dozen other state archivists to sort through the documents as a service to the community. “It’s more important to save history,” he said.
In terms of the damage, Excell said it was similar to what he sees in recovery efforts for water-damaged documents.
“It was pretty typical, there’s a few things completely untouched, some things that were damp, and some that are totally soaked.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, Excell said “we’re making a dent (in the recovery), there’s still a lot of stuff in there.”
About a dozen members of the Aberdeen Fire Department were on the scene in the morning, and made sure it was safe to enter the building’s side basement entrance. They also took time to pull a vintage firetruck, a 1927 Ahrens-Fox pumper truck, from the museum’s side garage door. It was then taken away on a flatbed truck and is a candidate for restoration.
Throughout the day, ServPro workers carted out dozens of boxes filled with documents and photos, but time is of the essence to recover everything they can. Excell explained that mold can set in on water-damaged records within several days. Along with that, the Aberdeen Fire Department is beginning its investigation into the fire’s origin Wednesday morning, and will not allow recovery efforts to continue during that.
The archivists have already sent multiple vehicles filled with photos to the State Archives in Olympia, and Excell said his team would work until dark to get everything out.
Excell said the ServPro workers are prioritizing the film and photographs first since the state archivists are leaving sooner, but he wasn’t sure yet if they would have time to remove everything.
Dann Sears, the museum’s former director, said “probably 80 to 90 percent” of the basement’s collection seemed salvageable after exploring the space.
Sears, along with the current museum director Dave Morris, were allowed into the basement with the ServPro team to pull out the documents. Sears said the roof collapsed down into the basement. He added that although there had been four feet of water, it’s now reduced to just a few inches.