One Meridian Plaza: 30 Years Later

Feb. 19, 2021
After three Philadelphia firefighters died in the One Meridian Plaza fire in 1991, a municipal law was eventually passed mandating the retrofit of fire sprinklers in existing buildings.

February 23, 2021, marks the 30-year anniversary of the devastating 12-alarm high-rise fire that occurred at the Meridian Bank Building, which was located at One Meridian Plaza in Philadelphia. The fire claimed the lives of three firefighters, injured 24 others and caused approximately $300 million in damage. The fire clearly demonstrated the dangers of high-rise fires and forced elected officials, the fire service, and the code community to take another look at how to best protect the occupants of high-rises and the firefighters who respond to fires in them.

The building

One Meridian Plaza, which was constructed in 1973, was a 38-story high-rise office building that once stood at the corner of 15th Street and South Penn Square in downtown Philadelphia. The building was approximately 243 feet long and 92 feet wide, yielding about 17,000 square feet of usable space on each floor. The Type 1 (fire-resistive) building featured fire-rated vertical columns, horizontal beams and floor assemblies, which were protected with spray-on fireproofing material. The building had working fire sprinklers only on four floors (30, 31, 34 and 35). Fire sprinklers weren’t required when the building was built but were installed on those floors at the request of the tenants.

The fire

The Saturday evening fire began in a pile of linseed oil-soaked rags that were left by a contractor in a vacant office on the 22nd floor. Because of incomplete smoke detector coverage in the area of origin, it is believed that the fire already was well-advanced when the fire alarm activated at 8:23 p.m. An additional four minutes would pass before the fire department would be notified by a passer-by at a payphone.

The first unit arrived at 8:31 p.m., reporting fire and smoke visible from the 22nd floor. Around 8:37 p.m., primary and secondary power failed, robbing critical systems (including the fire pumps, elevators, HVAC systems and interior lighting) of power. Firefighters were forced to use the dark, smoke-filled stairways to make the 22-story climb to attack the fire.

A 1¾-inch attack line that was equipped with an automatic fog nozzle (requiring 100 psi) was connected to the standpipe on the 21st floor and was advanced to the fire floor to begin suppression efforts. When the hoseline was put into service, firefighters found that they were unable to produce effective streams to combat the fire. The standpipes were equipped with pressure reducing valves (PRVs) on the outlets of the standpipe connections, which at the time were required by NFPA 14: Standard for the Installation of Standpipe and Hose Systems. This was to reduce the outlet pressures to a minimum of 65 psi and maximum of 100 psi (although several valves were found to be improperly adjusted, resulting in outlet pressures of less than 60 psi). Despite many attempts by the fire department, the PRVs prevented any pressure increases from reaching the attack lines.

Heavy smoke conditions in the stairwells further hampered suppression efforts. Around 10:00 p.m., Capt. David Holcombe, Firefighter Phyllis McAllister and Firefighter James Chappell, who were from Engine 11, were tasked with getting to the roof level to open a door or hatch to ventilate the smoke. While ascending the center stairwell, they advised command that they had become disoriented and had left the stairwell on the 30th floor. Holcombe requested permission to break a window for ventilation. A few moments later, Engine 11 would report, “The captain is down.” It was the last time that the crew from Engine 11 was heard from. Their bodies were found around 2:15 a.m. on the 28th floor.

Firefighters battled the blaze until 7:00 a.m. Following the loss of three firefighters and with concerns of structural collapse mounting, the decision was made to halt all interior firefighting efforts, and the evacuation order was given. Hose streams remained trained on the building from the exterior, but the fire continued to extend vertically, eventually breaching the 30th floor at several points by autoexposure through the exterior windows or through the floor assembly. At each point where the fire penetrated the 30th floor, the automatic fire sprinkler system controlled the fire and prevented further vertical progress. A total of 10 fire sprinklers activated to prevent further spread of the fire. The incident was placed under control at 3:01 p.m. on Feb. 24 after the building burned for nearly 19 hours.

The results

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) published a technical report (USFA-TR-049) on the One Meridian Plaza fire that examined the various challenges that the Philadelphia Fire Department faced while trying to bring the fire under control. The report asserts the need for built-in fire protection for high-rises and that it’s unreasonable to expect a fire department to provide the level of fire protection that high-rise buildings demand. The report concluded that, “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.”

In May of 1991, the NFPA issued an alert bulletin (91-3) that investigated the One Meridian Plaza fire. The report stated that “the lack of automatic fire sprinklers on the floor of fire origin” was one of the “significant factors affecting the outcome of this fire.” The report continued, “This tragic occurrence underscores the importance of not only providing adequate fire protection to the occupants of high-rise buildings but also providing it to the firefighters who are summoned to suppress fire in such occupancies.”

As part of the Major Fire Investigation Program, the USFA published a report, entitled “Operational Considerations for High-Rise Firefighting (TR-082),” which determined that “properly designed, installed and maintained sprinkler systems have proven to be the best method to successfully control and extinguish high-rise fires and protect occupants.”

Prior to 1993, NFPA 14 anticipated that fire departments would use a smooth bore nozzle (requiring 50 psi) connected to 100 feet of 2½-inch hose (producing approximately 13 psi of friction loss) and, therefore, permitted a minimum residual pressure of 65 psi at any 2½-inch standpipe outlet. In 1993, and as a result of the One Meridian Plaza fire, NFPA 14 increased the minimum residual pressure to 100 psi at any 2½-inch standpipe outlet after discovering that many fire departments were, in fact, using automatic nozzles, which require a minimum of 100 psi at the tip to operate effectively. However, this ignores the friction loss of the attack line itself.

Within two years, Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode signed a law that required all nonresidential buildings that were taller than 75 feet to have fire sprinkler systems installed by 1997. An estimated 300 buildings were affected by the law. As a result, no significant fires occurred in Philadelphia nonresidential high-rises in the past 24 years.

In 2009, a small memorial to Holcombe, McAllister and Chappell was erected on the south side of Penn Square. The inscription reads, “To sacrifice one’s own safety in the service of others requires a courage that is rare. Those among us who do are true heroes.”

May the lessons learned from this tragedy never be forgotten.

Fire departments must ensure that accurate preplans are developed and maintained for buildings in their response areas, and they must become familiar with the buildings and the built-in fire protection systems that are in them. Firefighters who might be called to fight fires in high-rise buildings should review NFPA 13E: Recommended Practice for Fire Department Operations in Properties Protected by Sprinkler and Standpipe Systems. This document is a valuable resource and makes several recommendations from inspection and pre-incident planning to post-fire operations and reports. It specifically mentions high-rise bundles and recommends the use of 2½-inch attack lines to reduce friction loss and avoiding the use of automatic or constant-pressure nozzles, which require higher nozzle pressures to be effective and easily are fouled by standpipe debris.

Since 1988, the Uniform Building Code requires new high-rise buildings to be fully sprinklered, and since 1990, the Building Officials and Code Administrators International building code has the same requirement. However, not all jurisdictions have adopted those model codes, and in most areas, there is no requirement to retrofit fire sprinklers into older buildings. Recent fires in high-rise buildings in Honolulu, Minneapolis and San Francisco proved that the threat of a major fire still exists in these older buildings.

Even the best-trained, best-equipped fire departments will struggle to control fires that are permitted to develop unchecked in the absence of an automatic fire sprinkler system. This makes it clear that fire sprinklers are the best method to protect the occupants of high-rises and the firefighters who respond to fires in them. Unfortunately, fires will continue to occur in high-rises with devastating effects until all of them are equipped with fire sprinklers.


The National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) created several publications that can assist stakeholders in getting high-rises (and other buildings) fully protected:

  • In 2018, “Partners in Progress: From Homes to High Rises” was featured as a Firehouse Magazine supplement. In the supplement, Ron Siarnicki explains why the fire service supports mandatory installation of fire sprinklers; Derrick Sawyer explains how the High-Rise Retrofit Work Plan aims to reduce risks to firefighters and the communities that they protect; Jeff Hugo covers the requirements and benefits of retrofitting sprinkler systems using current codes; and Shane Ray explains how the Tax Reform & Jobs Act allows for federal incentives to improve fire protection, underscoring that now is the time for change.
  • The “Fire Sprinkler Retrofit Guide” is intended to assist fire chiefs, code officials and other community leaders with implementing a fire sprinkler retrofit program within their communities.
  • Building/business owners can utilize changes that were made to recent federal tax reform bills to accelerate cost recovery for the installation, upgrade or retrofit of fire sprinkler systems in their properties. The “NFSA Guide, Fire Sprinkler Tax Incentives 2020” provides information that local businesses need to know about tax incentives and the importance of protecting buildings along with data and tools to help you to communicate with business owners and other stakeholders.

Turn to the NFSA

For more than a century, the NFSA has advocated for the widespread acceptance of fire sprinkler systems throughout the United States. Its mission: “To protect lives and property from fire through the wide-spread acceptance of the fire sprinkler concept.” The NFSA has accomplished this through a variety of means, including working closely with lawmakers on both state and local levels to pass legislation that makes homes and businesses safer and via media appearances and live fire sprinkler demonstrations. The NFSA also works closely with Common Voices, the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition and several grassroots organizations to advance its mission. Please visit the NFSA website at for more information.

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