Article by Dale Grant – Historical Journalist –
Late into the evening of Saturday, February 23, 1991, a fire began on the 22nd floor of One Meridian Plaza, a 38-story high-rise office building in downtown Philadelphia.
This 12-alarm fire would go on to completely obliterate 8 floors of the Center City office building over the course of 19 hours. When the smoke cleared, three Philadelphia Firefighters would lose their lives in the line of duty.
Investigation into the blaze would go on to find that the fire started as the result of a pile of rags left behind by workers refinishing woodwork in a vacant office. These rags, soaked in linseed oil, would oxidize and create enough heat to ignite spreading to other solvents nearby.
A significant reason the fire was able to blaze on the way it did was due in part to a number of challenges the fire department faced. By the time firefighters had reached the 11th floor, the building lost electricity due fire damaged electrical cables. In addition, the building’s emergency generator failed, meaning the entire edifice was without power for the complete duration of the event.
To add to their challenges, pressure reducing valves on the building’s standpipes were improperly adjusted, not allowing sufficient water pressure to fight the blaze. It would be several hours before a technician was able to adjust the valves. On top of the lack of water pressure, falling debris from the structure continually damaged fire hoses and injured fire-fighting personnel on the ground.
Finally, relief would come. Six hours into the blaze, the fire reached the 30th floor. This was the first floor of the building to contain automatic fire sprinklers. In the end, it was a mere 10 sprinkler heads that stopped the fire in its tracks. Unable to move any further up the building and rapidly running out of fuel, firefighters were able to turn the tide. While it would take another 13 hours for fire fighters to extinguish the last flame, the fire was effectively shut down by those sprinklers.
It would take a better part of the next decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to remove the irreparable building from the Philadelphia skyline.
Even 32 years later, the question stands, “How do we avoid another One Meridian Place fire from happening in the future?”
From the standpoint of fire protection specialists, we cannot stress the importance of regular inspections and maintenance of your building’s life safety systems. The reason most fire suppression systems fail to activate is due to them being manually turned off by a user for maintenance or other reasons. Regular inspections also mitigate the risk like issues such as the improperly calibrated pressure reducing valves, which led to the blaze getting out of control in the first place.
Another aspect of fire suppression the One Meridian fire makes clear is the importance of fire sprinklers. In the end, it was 10 sprinkler heads that stopped the spread of the fire. It is a safe assumption to make that had the 22nd floor of the building been equipped with fire sprinklers, the fire may have been controlled immediately saving the building and more importantly saving the lives of the three firefighters.
The city of Philadelphia is currently considering a bill that would require all high-rise buildings of 75 feet to be equipped with fire sprinklers with the intent of making sure a fire like the one that destroyed One Meridian Plaza never happens again.
For 65 years, Oliver Fire Protection & Security has been the area’s Trust Partner in Protection.
Oliver offers regular inspection and maintenance of your life safety systems to ensure that when tragedy strikes that your building is prepared to reduce the risk to lives and property.
Whether you are undertaking a new construction project or looking to retrofit an existing building with a fire suppression or notification system, please contact Oliver Fire Protection and security for a free consultation.