On Thursday evening, someone walked up to the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., set down a gas canister and lit it on fire. The fire department was able to put out the blaze and no one was injured during the incident, though an exterior wall of the building did sustain some damage. Authorities are now searching for the suspect responsible for the crime.
Surveillance footage shared by the National Archives shows an individual wearing “dark pants and a dark jacket over a light colored hooded shirt with the hood up,” approaching the left side of the building and bending over. Moments later, the individual can be seen running away, just before the building is illuminated in an ominous orange glow.
“We think [the suspect is] a man,” John Valceanu, a spokesman for the National Archives, tells Michael E. Ruane of the Washington Post. “But it’s a little hard to tell because the person was covered like that.”
Nor do officials know what motivated the arson attempt. “We don’t have any idea what their objective or what their motive was,” Valceanu says.
President Franklin Roosevelt created the National Archives in 1934, and the “nation’s record-keeper” amasses documents and other media that testify to important events in American history, with significant materials dating from the nation’s founding onward. Among the institution’s billions of pages of textual records, millions of photographs and thousands of video and sound recordings are such invaluable documents as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The arson attempt is not the first time that the National Archives was attacked. In 1986, a hammer-wielding man smashed a glass case containing the three aforementioned documents—which, fortunately, were not damaged. Meanwhile, the 1973 fire at the National Archives’ National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, offers a sobering reminder of just how devastating flames can be to institutions tasked with safeguarding precious records. During that incident, an estimated 16 to 18 million official military personnel files were destroyed.
Last Thursday, National Archives security officials were quick to notice that something was amiss on the building’s video monitors. They tried to put the fire out with portable extinguishers, but the blaze was not contained until firefighters arrived on the scene. “The flames were pretty high,” Valceanu tells Ruane.
The incident is now under investigation by multiple agencies, including the National Archives Records Administration's Office of the Inspector General. In a statement, the National Archives asks that anyone with relevant information contact the Office of the Inspector General through its official website or by calling 1-800-786-2551.