One Meridian Plaza High Rise Fire: Twenty Years Ago

Fire Operations One Meridian Plaza

On what began as an uneventful Saturday night twenty years ago, a fire on the 22nd floor of the 38-story Meridian Bank Building, also known as One Meridian Plaza, was reported to the Philadelphia Fire Department on February 23, 1991 at approximately 2040 hours and went on to burned for more than 19 hours. 

The fire caused three firefighter fatalities (LODD) and injuries to 24 firefighters. 

PFD Line of Duty Deaths: 

  • Captain David P. Holcombe, age 52
  • Firefighter Phyllis McAllister, age 43
  • Firefighter James A. Chappell, age 29
  •  
  • The 12-alarms brought 51 engine companies, 15 ladder companies, 11 specialized units, and over 300 firefighters to the scene.
  • It was one of the largest high-rise office building fire in modern American history –completely consuming eight floors of the building –and was controlled only when it reached a floor that was protected by automatic sprinklers.
  • The Fire Department arrived to find a well-developed fire on the 22nd floor, with fire dropping down to the 21st floor through a set of convenience stairs.
  • Heavy smoke had already entered the stairways and the floors immediately above the 22nd.
  • Fire attack was hampered by a complete failure of the building’s electrical system and by inadequate water pressure, caused in part by improperly set pressure reducing valves on standpipe hose outlets.

The USFA published a technical report (USFA-TR-049) on the One Meridian Plaza fire that is still available for download from the USFA web site, HERE. The report clearly defined the need in 1991, for built-in fire protection systems and reiterated the fact that fire departments alone cannot expect or be expected to provide the level of fire protection that modem high-rises demand. That fire protection must be built-in to the structures. This was clearly illustrated in this event when the One Meridian Plaza fire was finally stopped when it reached a floor where automatic sprinklers had been installed.One Meridian Plaza was a 38-story high-rise office building, located in the heart of downtown Philadelphia, in an area of high-rise and mid-rise structures. The building had three underground levels, 36 above ground occupiable floors, two mechanical floors (12 and 38), and two rooftop helipads. The building was rectangular in shape, approximately 243 feet in length by 92 feet in width (approximately 22,400 gross square feet), with roughly 17,000 net usable square feet per floor. Site work for construction began in 1968, and the building was completed and approved for occupancy in 1973. 

Construction was classified by the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections as equivalent to BOCA Type 1B construction which requires 3-hour fire rated building columns, 2-hour fire rated horizontal beams and floor/ ceiling systems, and l-hour fire rated corridors and tenant separations. Shafts, including stairways, are required to be 2-hour fire rated construction, and roofs must have l-hour fire rated assemblies. 

The building frame was structural steel with concrete floors poured over metal decks. All structural steel and floor assemblies were protected with spray-on fireproofing material. The exterior of the building was covered by granite curtain wall panels with glass windows attached to the perimeter floor girders and spandrels. The building utilized a central core design, although one side of the core is adjacent to the south exterior wall. The core area was approximately 38 feet wide by 124 feet long and contained two stairways, four banks of elevators, two HVAC supply duct shafts, bathroom utility chases, and telephone and electrical risers. 

SUMMARY OF KEY ISSUES 

  • Origin and Cause: The fire started in a vacant 22nd floor office in a pile of linseed oil-soaked rags left by a contractor. Fire Alarm System The activation of a smoke detector on the 22nd floor was the first notice of a possible fire. Due to incomplete detector coverage, the fire was already well advanced before the detector was activated.
  • Building Staff Response: Building employees did not call the fire department when the alarm was activated. An employee investigating the alarm was trapped when the elevator opened on the fire floor and was rescued when personnel on the ground level activated the manual recall. The Fire Department was not called until the employee had been rescued.
  • Alarm Monitoring Service: The private service which monitors the fire alarm system did not call the Fire Department when the alarm was first activated. A call was made to the building to verify that they were aware of the alarm. The building personnel were already checking the alarm at that time.
  • Electrical Systems: Installation of the primary and secondary electrical power risers in a common unprotected enclosure resulted in a complete power failure when the fire-damaged conductors shorted to ground. The natural gas powered emergency generator also failed.
  • Fire Barriers: Unprotected penetrations in fire-resistance rated assemblies and the absence of fire dampers in ventilation shafts permitted fire and smoke to spread vertically and horizontally.
  • Ventilation openings in the stairway enclosures permitted smoke to migrate into the stairways, complicating firefighting.
  • Unprotected openings in the enclosure walls of 22nd floor electrical closet permitted the fire to impinge on the primary and secondary electrical power risers.
  • Standpipe System and Pressure Reducing Valves (PRVs): Improperly installed standpipe valves provided inadequate pressure for fire department hose streams using 1 3/ 4-inch hose and automatic fog nozzles. Pressure reducing valves were installed to limit standpipe outlet discharge pressures to safe levels. The PRVs were set too low to produce effective hose streams; tools and expertise to adjust the valve settings did not become available until too late.
  • Locked Stairway Doors: For security reasons, stairway doors were locked to prevent reentry except on designated floors. (A building code variance had been granted to approve this arrangement.) This compelled firefighters to use forcible entry tactics to gain access from stairways to floor areas.
  • Fire Department Pre-Fire Planning: Only limited pre-fire plan information was available to the Incident Commander. Building owners provided detailed plans as the fire progressed.
  • Firefighter Fatalities: Three firefighters from Engine Company 11 died on the 28th floor when they became disoriented and ran out of air in their SCBAs.
  • Exterior Fire Spread: “Autoexposure” Exterior vertical fire spread resulted when exterior windows failed. This was a primary means of fire spread.
  • Structural Failures: Fire-resistance rated construction features, particularly floor-ceiling assemblies and shaft enclosures (including stair shafts), failed when exposed to continuous fire of unusual intensity and duration.
  • Interior Fire Suppression Abandoned: After more than 11 hours of uncontrolled fire growth and spread, interior firefighting efforts were abandoned due to the risk of structural collapse.
  • Automatic Sprinklers: The fire was eventually stopped when it reached the fully sprinklered 30th floor. Ten sprinkler heads activated at different points of fire penetration.
  • The three firefighters who died were attempting to ventilate the center stair tower: They radioed a request for help stating that they were on the 30th floor. After extensive search and rescue efforts, their bodies were later found on the 28th floor. They had exhausted all of their air supply and could not escape to reach fresh air. At the time of their deaths, the 28th floor was not burning but had an extremely heavy smoke condition.
  • After the loss of three personnel, hours of unsuccessful attack on the fire, with several floors simultaneously involved in fire, and a risk of structural collapse, the Incident Commander withdrew all personnel from the building due to the uncontrollable risk factors. The fire ultimately spread up to the 30th floor where it was stopped by ten automatic sprinklers.

Take the time to review this report and examine some of similar issues affecting the fire service today in the areas of staffing and resources, construction and materials, building codes, built-in fire suppression systems, training, pre-fire planning, fire load, fire dynamics and the current methodologies on wind-drive fire theory. 

Building Overview NarrativeOne Meridian Plaza was a 38-story high-rise office building in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Located across from Philadelphia’s City Hall, it was originally constructed in 1972 as the headquarter building for the Girard Bank. By 1991 it housed 27 tenants, and was the regional headquarters for Meridian Bancorp, which occupied eight floors (Menkus 1992). The rectangular building was 243 feet long and 92 feet wide, and contained about 17,000 net usable square feet per floor. Refer to Plan below for a typical floor plan from One Meridian Plaza. The lower two floors of the tower were below grade, floors 12 and 38 housed mechanical equipment, and the roof contained access via two helipads. The building frame was structural steel with composite metal decking, and the structure was also joined on the east side by a connecting link and stairwell to the 34-story Girard Trust Building. In compliance with all codes available in 1972, the building was classified and fireproofed as equivalent to BOCA Type 1B construction (Chubb 1991). The structural steel was protected with spray-on fireproofing, and sprinklers were not required by code, so they were not installed. In 1984 Philadelphia adopted the National Building Code, which required that newly constructed buildings 75 feet high be fully sprinklered. One Meridian Plaza was grandfathered and not required to install sprinklers due to the high installation and retrofit costs (Post March 1991). By 1991, only nine floors of the building had working sprinkler systems. These systems had been installed at the request of the tenants occupying those levels (Mangan 1991). 

Typical Floor Plan (22nd Floor)

Here’s a story posted today at the Phildalphia Daily News with insights on this anniversary 

One Meridian Plaza: 20 years ago, the fire that changed the nation By NATALIE POMPILIO Philadelphia Daily News 

When Jack Bloomer and the other firefighters arrived at One Meridian Plaza that cold February night in 1991, flames were encompassing the building more than 20 stories above, leaping from floor to floor. Smoke poured into the air, and broken glass rained down. 

“It was obvious when we pulled up it was an ugly-looking job,” Bloomer, 61, remembered yesterday. 

He had no idea how bad it would get. 

By the time the 12-alarm fire was declared under control 19 hours later, three firefighters were dead, 12 others were injured and a Center City high-rise was lost. The blaze, 20 years ago today, changed the city’s skyline and the way the nation fights fires. 

“When that fire happened, it was on the news all over the world,” said Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager at the Maryland-based Society of Fire Protection Engineers. “The One Meridian fire was one of the most significant fires in the history of high-rise buildings.” 

The fire changed Bloomer, who was driving Engine 11 that night. With him were Capt. David Holcombe and Firefighters Phyllis McAllister and James Chappell. 

Bloomer’s the only one who made it home. Read the entire article HERE 

Jack Bloomer was the only survivor from his platoon. David Holcombe, Phyllis McAllister and James Chappell perished in the Feb. 23 high-rise inferno

  • One Meridian Plaza Photo Slide Show HERE
  • NFPA Summary Report HERE

Other Insights: Good Article related to design, construction and failure issues HERE 

Excerpts: At about 8 p.m. on Saturday, 23 February 1991, linseed oil-soaked rags left behind by a cleaning crew burst into flames on the 22nd floor of the 38-story One Meridian Plaza in downtown Philadelphia. The fire quickly spread, unimpeded by fire sprinklers, throughout the 22nd floor and then upward. Sprinklers were not required by the City’s building code at the time of construction and were being added to the building only as opportunity presented itself. 

The twelve-alarm fire burned for 18 hours. The extreme heat caused window glass and frames to melt and concrete floor slabs and steel beams to buckle and sag dramatically. Large shards of window glass fell from the facade, cutting through fire hoses on the ground around the building. Three firefighters were trapped on a fully engulfed floor, and efforts to rescue them failed. 

The fire would not yield and there were increasing concerns about the stability of the structure. Fire officials called off the attack and allowed the fire to “free burn,” concentrating their efforts on containing the fire to this building. When the fire reached the 30th floor, a tenant-installed fire-sprinkler system was activated, and the worst high-rise fire in U.S. history was finally brought under control. 

Other Notable High-Rise Fires 

First Interstate Bank Building – Los Angeles, California

On May 4, 1998, the 62-story First Interstate Bank Building in Los Angeles, California experienced a devastating fire that damaged five of the building’s floors before it was brought under control. It is thought that the fire was the result of an electrical malfunction, but the cause was actually never determined. The building was in the process of being retrofit with an automatic sprinkler system, which had been installed in about 90 percent of the building, but was not operational at the time of the fire. Security personnel dismissed initial fire and smoke alarms, which delayed the response of the fire department by almost 15 minutes. Also contributing to the spread of the fire was the large quantity of combustible materials on each floor, equipment penetrations and other openings, and a standpipe system that had been shut down due to the sprinkler installation. Firefighters were also forced to battle dangerous conditions that were created by the failure of the glass façade and its subsequent fall to the ground below. The fire was eventually extinguished with the internal standpipe system, but not before one death and over 50 million dollars worth of damage (Routley 1988). 

Schomburg Plaza – New York, New York

The fire at Schomburg Plaza was unusual in the fact that it originated in the upper sections of a trash chute that serviced the 35-story apartment building. The March 22, 1987 fire started somewhere between the 27th and 29th floors, and then traveled up the trash chute and through the walls into surrounding apartments. Investigations following the fire found that sprinklers in the chute either failed to work because they were clogged, or were not actually connected to the piping system. It was also determined that the building was not built according to its plans, and therefore certain areas did not meet the two hour fire rating required by code. A final issue was the initial response to the fire and the misconception that it was a common compactor fire, as had been seen several times before. Neither firefighters, nor dispatchers realized the severity of the fire, and initially believed that it was under control, which created an even more dangerous situation. As a result of this fire, seven people lost their lives (Schaenman 1987). 

High-Rise Condominium – Clearwater, Florida

A more recent high-rise fire occurred on June 28, 2002, in an 11-story condominium building in Clearwater, Florida. The fire originated in the kitchen of a fifth floor apartment, and instead of pulling the fire alarm and alerting the fire department, the tenant tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire. This delay allowed the blaze to grow for 17 minutes before the fire department was even notified. As firefighters arrived on the scene they encountered several problems, including radio communication issues, closed standpipe riser valves, and a damaged fire hydrant. Another issue was that some building residents ignored fire alarms and failed to evacuate, believing that it was false alarm. The building was not equipped with an automatic sprinkler system, and therefore several units and the central hallway were heavily damaged by fire, smoke, and water before the blaze was declared under control. In the end two people were killed and many more were injured. The tragedy resulted in one million dollars worth of damage and the installation of an automatic sprinkler system. 

 

Feb. 24, 1991: A Medevac helicopter takes off from 15th Street about 1:30 a.m. Sunday to take urgently needed fresh air bottles to the roof. The bottles were not in time for three of the firefighters. (Mike Levin / Inquirer files)

 

 
 
 
 

 

  

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