Meridian Building High-Rise Fire's Impact on Philadelphia Decades Later

On Feb. 23, 1991 a deadly fire broke out in a Center City skyscraper that would change to landscape of the city forever

It’s hard to believe but Thursday marks the 26th anniversary of the start of the Center City skyscraper fire that claimed the lives of three firefighters, changed how firefighters battle high-rise blazes and changed the Philly skyline forever.

Philadelphians remember seeing the thick smoke pour from One Meridian Plaza -- the 38-floor sky-rise that was catty-corner to Philadelphia’s City Hall.

On Feb. 23, 1991 around 8:30 p.m. fire broke out when oil-soaked rags left by a contractor on the vacant 22nd floor caught fire. Throughout the night, thick smoke could be seen for miles around as firefighters battled the office building throughout the night.

What followed was a series of missteps that led to a U.S. Fire Administration report that called for drastic changes in fire monitoring, firefighting and building to prevent fires.

The government report found that water supply issues, heavy smoke and other factors hampered the firefighting efforts. It wasn’t until 3 p.m. on Feb. 24 that the fire was finally brought under control.

In the end, the fire claimed the lives of fire Captain David Holcombe Sr., firefighter Phyllis McAllister and firefighter James Chappell; gutted eight stories of the building; and caused $100 million in direct property loss, according to Fire Administration report.

The fire could have been worse if it wasn't for firefighters' bravery.

"Analysis of the situation reveals, however, that the toll could have been much worse, had it not been for the courage, skills, and experience of this department," said the report. "Several extremely difficult decisions were made under the most severe conditions."

As the Meridian sat boarded up and vacant for years, battles raged over what to do with the destroyed building as litigation resulted in an estimated $4 billion in civil damage claims.

The building was finally torn down in 1999. Today the 48-story luxury condos, The Residences at The Ritz-Carlton, stand where the Meridian once did.

Fire commissioner Adam Thiel will mark the anniversary with Thursday afternoon remarks.

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