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Safe keeping

Courthouse records saved
through freeze drying process

Quick action saved most documents
from mold damage

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(June 2009) – Freeze drying isn’t just for coffee. The high-tech procedure was used to save most of the records and documents from water and smoke damage sustained during a major fire on May 20 at the Jefferson County, Ind., Courthouse.

Courthouse clean up

Photo by Don Ward

Workers began the arduous task of
cleaning debris out of the courthouse
and saving precious files and records
almost immediately after the
devastating May 20 fire.

“It appears most things will be salvageable,” said Alan January, program director for the Indiana State Archives. “Quick action on the part of the Jefferson County commissioners saved much of the records from irreparable damage.”
He said disaster teams from the state were alerted early and were able to get to the site within the time frame needed to make the recovery as successful as possible.
Recovery crews from Electronic Restoration Services Inc., a nationwide disaster recovery and restoration company based in Livonia, Mich., were hired to do the job. They hauled away three semi-truck loads of computer and paper documents to their labs in Michigan. Many documents were restored within a week.
“Things went pretty smooth once we were able to really get in and work,” said Deb Hamann, the general manager for ERS’s Indianapolis branch. “We were able to bring out the documents from the basement and the first and second floors and get them frozen before mold or other micro carbons could start to damage them.”
January said mold is the biggest enemy of wet paper documents because it absolutely ruins them. Ideally, documents need to be recovered within a 48-72 hour time frame and either frozen or dried to prevent mold from occurring.
Hamann said ERS recovery crews will be back on site at the Jefferson County Courthouse to retrieve documents from the third floor as soon as it is safe to do so. Teams had to wait until the cupola and bell tower were removed from the damaged building before they could get to the third floor documents.
“As far as those documents go, how damaged they are will depend on several factors, including where they were, how they were stored and how wet they are,” she said.
The recovered courthouse documents, many of which are irreplaceable, were stored in a special facility to be vacuum freeze dried. The company also recovered much of the courthouse electronics and artwork.
Katie Mullen, conservator for the state library, said that while the vacuum freeze drying sounds like a strange process, it works wonderfully.
“It is the best method for such a recovery process, particularly when dealing with mass amounts of documents,” she said. Several thousand cubic feet of documents were removed from the courthouse.
Mullen said that even during a house fire, documents should be immediately put into a freezer if they can’t be spread out to dry with fans or the sun. “A simple kitchen freezer will work,” she said. Of course the documents will need to be thawed and dried out at a later date.
During vacuum freeze drying, however, the thawing process is eliminated. The frozen papers are put into a special vacuum sealed facility where they are out-gassed. The process takes the ice and paper through a process called sublimation, which forces the ice to skip the thawing process that would turn it into a liquid (water) and instead turns it straight into a gas. “The technique uses the gas pressure laws in chemistry,” she said.
“This is the most successful recovery I have ever witnessed,” said Mullen. “It almost never goes this well, but the commissioners’ immediate response to the disaster and quick decision-making saved those records.”

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