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One Meridian Plaza: Fatal high-rise fire prompts change

The 12-alarm blaze resulted in the deaths of three Philadelphia firefighters: David Holcombe, Phyllis McAllister and James Chappell

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“The One Meridian Plaza Fire brought about building and safety code changes for new construction, with automatic sprinklers and fire detection systems being the major improvements,” writes Vatter.

Photo/WPVI screengrab

One of the most significant high-rise fires of the 20th century occurred on Feb. 23, 1991, at Philadelphia’s One Meridian Plaza – a 12-alarm blaze that spanned more than 18 hours and resulted in the death of three Philadelphia Fire Department firefighters: Captain David Holcombe, Firefighter Phyllis McAllister and Firefighter James Chappell.

The fire was ultimately stopped by 10 operating sprinkler heads on the 30th floor.

The cause of the fire was a pile of oil-soaked rags left in an office being refurbished.

The One Meridian Plaza building

The One Meridian Plaza building was a 38-story office building completed in 1972 and occupied in 1973.

The building was constructed under Philadelphia’s 1949 building code. This code made no distinction between high-rise construction and other types of construction. It was classified as equivalent to BOCA Type 1B construction and not equipped with automatic sprinklers.

The building was constructed around a central core, with open floor space between the core and private offices located around the perimeter of the floor. The core contained the elevator banks, HVAC ducts, and other utility chases and risers. The pipe and duct penetrations were unprotected, leaving vertical and horizontal penetrations.

The building had three stairwells that serviced all floors. Two of the staircases contained standpipe risers. The third (east) stairwell attached the fire building floors to corresponding floors of the adjacent building and was not equipped with a standpipe riser.

Philadelphia adopted a new building code in the early 1980s, which included the installation of sprinklers in high-rise buildings. The owners of One Meridian Plaza decided to retrofit the entire building with an NFPA 13 sprinkler system by 1993.

At the time of the fire, sprinklers had been installed on the 30th, 31st, 34th and 35th floors. Sprinklers had partially been installed on the 37th floor as well as the 11th and 15th floors.

The building was not equipped with an automatic alarm system. Activation alarms were transmitted to a central monitoring service.

Fire attack challenges

The fire was first reported by a passerby who called 911 from a pay telephone. Neither the building staff nor the alarm company called the fire department when the building’s fire alarm system was activated. The building staff sent an employee to confirm the alarm, and the alarm company called the building staff to confirm the alarm.

  • The alarm was activated at 2023 hours.
  • The call from the pay phone was received at 2024.
  • The first-due companies arrived at 2031.

A security guard notified fire department personnel that the fire was on the 22nd floor. Because of conflicting information and concern for member safety, the first companies were directed to take the elevator to the 11th floor and walk up to the fire floor.

Shortly after arriving at the 11th floor, the building lost all electrical power. Despite multiple efforts, power was never restored during firefighting operations. This required all equipment to be carried to the 20th-floor staging area.

The initial fire attack began on the 22nd floor. The door leading from the stairway was warped from the heat and would not open. The engine company operated a 1¾-inch line through the wire glass window while the door was being forced open. Once they gained entry, they were unable to make progress because of intense heat and low water pressure. Low water pressure was ultimately a problem for over five hours.

Additional entry was made on the 21st floor. That hoseline was stretched to the tenant convenience stair to attack the fire from below. Because of insufficient pressure, the company was unable to make progress against the fire.

As the fire continued to grow and spread, windows broke from the heat allowing autoexposure of upper floors from the exterior. The fire also continued to spread through the interior because of unprotected openings in the floors and shafts.

In an attempt to improve water pressure, the standpipe system was supplied by multiple engines, but to no avail. The water supply problems were not resolved until 5-inch supply lines were hand-stretched to the 24th floor.

The water pressure problem was created by pressure-reducing valves (PRV) on the standpipe connections. These valves were all factory set to deliver 65 psi at the nozzle based on 150 feet of 2½-inch hose with a smooth bore nozzle. The Philadelphia Fire Department high-rise packs were 150 feet of 1¾-inch hose with automatic fog nozzles. The fog nozzles required 100 psi to operate properly.

Engine Co. 11

Engine Company 11 was assigned to ventilate the stairwells by opening doorways or hatches at the roof level. The captain and two firefighters began their climb from the 22nd floor. On the 30th floor, the crew became disoriented in the heavy smoke. Attempts were made to provide directions to other stairways. One of the firefighters subsequently reported that the captain was down.

Rescue teams were sent from the ground, with a helicopter sent to the roof. They were unable to locate the lost crew, nearly losing another firefighter who became disoriented.

Additional rescue teams were assembled, and one located the downed members near a window they had broken. Engine 11 was located on the 28th floor near the broken window and removed from the building.

At 0700 on Feb. 24, the order was given to evacuate the building for fear of structural collapse. The fire had been burning for 11 hours.

The evacuation was completed by 0730. The only firefighting operations now in effect were portable master streams operated from exposure buildings.

Although the fire was mostly extinguished on floors 22 through 24, the fire continued to burn above those floors.

The vertical spread of the fire was stopped by the operation of 10 sprinkler heads on the 30th floor.

Watch an original news broadcast from the night of the 1991 fire:

The aftermath

The One Meridian Plaza Fire brought about building and safety code changes for new construction, with automatic sprinklers and fire detection systems being the major improvements. Some communities have gone so far as requiring high rises to be retrofitted with sprinkler systems. The challenge remains to improve automatic fire protection in existing high-rise buildings. There continues to be pushback based on the cost of sprinkler retrofits.

The lack of urgency to retrofit existing high-rise buildings with automatic sprinklers continues to result in civilian deaths. A Honolulu condominium fire in January 2023 killed one person nearly six years after a 2017 Honolulu high-rise apartment building fire killed three. Both buildings were not equipped with automatic sprinklers. In 2022, Honolulu passed an ordinance requiring retrofitting of high-rise buildings by 2042. Further, the 2022 Bronx Twin Parks fire that killed 17 people was in another building without automatic sprinklers.

Until the One Meridian Plaza fire, most fire departments were unaware of the pressure-reducing valves (PRV) installed in many standpipe systems. The crux of the PRV issue for fire departments is that they are installed and then not properly set for local fire department operations. Generally, PRVs are delivered to the job site with a factory set based on the use of 150 feet of 2½-inch handlines equipped with 1 1/8- inch smooth bore nozzles. In other words, PRVs are set at 75 psi at the valve to deliver 65 psi at the nozzle.

At the One Meridian Plaza fire, Philadelphia’s standard high-rise kit used 1¾-inch hose with automatic fog nozzles that required 100 psi nozzle pressure. The PRVs in the One Meridian building were all installed with the factory settings. Ideally, fire department should inventory buildings equipped with standpipe systems and have the PRVs set to the operating pressure of their standard high-rise kit. Alternatively, departments should consider revising high-rise operating procedures as needed.

Among other things, high-rise fires require enormous amounts of resources to combat the blaze. Philadelphia used 51 engine companies, 15 ladder companies and a host of special units to fight the One Meridian Plaza fire. A working fire in a New York City high rise gets four engines, four ladders, four battalion chiefs, a deputy chief, a rescue company, a squad company, a FAST Unit, and many more specialized units and chiefs. In most communities, what is sent to a smells and bells call in a high-rise senior housing complex will be overwhelmed on arrival at a working fire.

Advocacy as priority

It is incumbent on fire departments to advocate for automatic sprinklers in high-rise buildings. That lesson was made plain by the One Meridian Plaza fire, stopped by just 10 operating sprinkler heads.

Routine inspections of high-rise buildings can help ensure that required fire and life safety systems are installed and working. The One Meridian Plaza fire was one where anything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

References

  1. Coffin, Bill.  Fire Traps, Risk Management; New York Vol. 65, Iss. 7, (Jul/Aug 2018): 28-31.
  2. “High-rise Office Building Fire One Meridian Plaza Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.”
  3. Hensler, Bruce (2022). “One Meridian Plaza: 3 firefighters killed during unimaginable blaze.”
  4. Jennings, Charles, Routley, J. & Chubb, Mark. (1991). “Highrise Office Building Fire One Meridian Plaza,” FEMA (TR-049).
  5. Klem, Thomas, J. “High Rise Fire Claims Three Philadelphia Firefighters,” NFPA Journal. 1991 Vol 85, No.5.

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