Rags soaked in linseed oil burst into flames at 8:23 p.m. on February 23, 1991 on the 22nd floor of One Meridian Plaza.
Arriving firefighters confronted a series of mechanical foul-ups inside the 38-story building. Elevators stopped, backup generators failed and a crucial internal water distribution system called a standpipe actually choked off water pressure.
"Our team went into the high-rise at a disadvantage," said current Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers.
Flames raced up to floors 23 and 24.
Firefighters arrived to battle the flames but, in the end, three would be lost: Captain David Holcomb and firefighters Phyllis McAllister and James Chappell of Engine 11 were disoriented by smoke and perished.
A few days later then-battalion Chief Ayers remembered Holcomb as a mentor.
"He was one of the ones who pushed me aside and said 'stay in the books and keep my nose clean," Ayers said back in 1991.
The next day, a Sunday, firefighters evacuated fearing the building would collapse. The blaze continued to burn until it reached the 30th floor, where sprinklers finally helped stop the spreading flames.
20 years later, the most important lesson from the 19 hour blaze:
"Sprinklers in buildings save lives," said Ayers.
Philadelphia now requires all commercial high-rise building to have sprinklers. Residential high-rises must have them in certain key areas.
As for the Meridian, it took until 1999 for it to be completely dismantled.
A memorial to the lost firefighters now stands outside the Residences at the Ritz Carlton, built on the former Meridian site.
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