It started on the 22nd floor of the 38-story One Meridian Plaza on Feb 23, 1991, when a pile of linseed oil-soaked rags left by a contractor were ignited accidentally through spontaneous combustion. The blaze, which burned for 19 hours, raged from the 22nd floor to the 30th floor before a sprinkler system installed by a tenant on the 30th floor extinguished the flames. The fire eventually went to 12-alarms and consumed the resources of 51 engine companies, 15 ladder companies, 11 specialized units, and over 300 firefighters. The fire would also claim the lives of three firefighters, and injured two dozen more.
The 38-story building was located between Market and Ranstead Streets on South 15th, in the area of Philadelphia known as “Center City”. It was 492 ft tall (150 m) and completed in 1972. It was owned by E/R Partners, a joint venture of the Rubin Organization, a Philadelphia real estate company; Equitable Life Assurance Company of America and a Dutch pension fund. Prior to the fire, it was considered one of the most expensive offices in the city center.
The building was never repaired due to a dispute over fire insurance. The owner’s consulting engineers proposed stripping the building to structural steel to just below the 19th floor and reconstructing it at a cost of $250 million. Aetna Corporation (now part of Travelers Group, when in turn merged into Citigroup), the insurer, maintained that the undamaged girders above that level could be used, cutting reconstruction costs to $115 million. Aetna also proposed taking over the reconstruction, as permitted in the language of its insurance policy, and returning it after completion to the owners.  The two parties reached an undisclosed settlement in 1997.
Eventually, One Meridian Plaza was demolished floor by floor from 1998 to 1999 to make way for the Residences At The Ritz. Because of the building’s proximity to City Hall and adjacent buildings, implosion was not a viable option.
Today is the 17 year anniversary of one of the worst high rise fires in the history of the American Fire Service. The fire at One Meridian Plaza here in Philly destroyed the 38 story office building and claimed the lives of three Philly Firemen. Dozens were injured and in the end the PFD would never be the same.
As stated above the fire started in an upper floor when oil soaked rags left by a contractor spontaneously ignited. Unchecked by sprinklers the fire spread rapidly. When the Firefighters attempted to fight the fire they were hampered by the presence of Pressure Reducers installed in the standpipe system. The standpipe is a vertical pipe that runs up through a building’s fire tower and is used to supply water needed for firefighting. The Pressure reducers are installed so that the water pressure remains manageable. At the time many firefighters were unfamiliar with the devices. Complicating the matter was the fact that they were improperly set. This diminished the water pressure and the result was that the fire consumed the partially sprinklered building floor by floor.
Ironically early the next morning after an all night firefight and the firemen had been “Pulled” from the building due to fears of impending collapse the fire reached the 30 th floor and was extinguished by the sprinklers there.
The defeat for the PFD was complete. Three firemen who had gone up the stair tower to find a ventilation hatch had been overcome and died. Other firemen who were sent on a rescue mission to find them also became lost and nearly died. They were saved at the last minute by a Chief who took a helicopter to the roof and found a door that led to the way out. A high rise office building in the middle of down town Philadelphia, just yards from City Hall lay in ruin. Millions of dollars in damage and claims for lost property and business and years of legal battles lay ahead.
In the end the building was finally torn down. There was no saving it. Today a new high rise condo tower is being built on the spot. I pass it every day at work. This fire happened about a year before I came into the Fire Service. It serves as a constant reminder for me as to what is at stake when things go wrong. Unfortunately memories fade. Today there are few veterans of the Meridian job left in the Department. The two Chiefs who fought the fire all night will retire soon. We will lose more of their experience and knowledge. Yet that is not the pressing problem for the Fire Service today. EMS (Emergency Medical Service) is the dominant issue. Firefighting training has taken a backseat to providing ambulance service. It is a recipe for disaster. One I hope I never have to face.
In memory of our fallen brothers form Engine-11:
FF. James Chappell, Capt. David Holcombe, and FF. Phyllis McAllister