On this Date in History: February 23, 1991

Contributed by Stephanie Lange

One Meridian Plaza Fire
Three Philadelphia firefighters lost their lives fighting the largest high-rise office building fire in modern American history at the Meridian Bank Building, also known as One Meridian Plaza. Twenty-four additional firefighters were injured. The fire extended from the 22nd up to the 30th floor, with an estimated $100 million in direct property damage. Twelve-alarms brought 51 engine companies and over 300 firefighters to the scene.

Construction on the 38-story Meridian Bank Building began in 1968 and was completed for occupancy in 1973. The building’s fire protection systems was upgraded around 1988. Manual pull fire alarms were replaced by automatic central station monitored alarms. The originally installed dry standpipe system was replaced with a wet system that was fed by two electric fire pumps. At the time of construction, automatic sprinklers were required only on service floors located below the street level. At the request of selected tenants, sprinklers were installed on floors 30, 31, 34, and 35 during renovation of those floors. The building owners had plans to install automatic sprinklers only at tenants’ request during renovation.

The fire started in a vacant 22nd floor office with a pile of linseed oil-soaked rags left by a contractor. The Fire Department arrived to find a well-developed fire on the 22nd floor and fire dropping down to the 21st floor through a set of stairs. Heavy smoke had already entered the stairways and the floors immediately above. Firefighters were hampered by comprehensive 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.

Eventually after the tragic loss of three firefighters and consulting with a structural engineer about the possibility of collapse, an order was given to evacuate the building. At that point, the fire was controlled on the 22nd through 24th floors but continued to burn on floors 25 and 26 and extend upward. The fire was finally stopped when it reached the fully sprinklered 30th floor. Ten sprinkler heads activated to extinguish the fire, effectively stopping the vertical spread. The 30th floor sustained little fire damage.

The United States Fire Administration’s investigative report on the Meridian Plaza fire summed up the role of automatic sprinkler systems in the following statement: “The ultimate message delivered by this fire is the proof that automatic sprinklers are the most effective and reliable means at our disposal to protect high-rise buildings. When all other systems failed, automatic sprinklers were successful in controlling the fire.”