VIDEO: Images, sounds from One Meridian fire 25 years ago

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At 8:23 p.m. on Saturday, February 23rd, 1991, rags soaked in linseed oil burst into flames inside One Meridian Plaza in Center City Philadelphia. (WPVI)

At 8:23 p.m. on Saturday, February 23rd, 1991, rags soaked in linseed oil burst into flames inside One Meridian Plaza in Center City Philadelphia.

The series of failures that led to the deaths of three firefighters that day continue to amaze, even 25 years later.

Arriving firefighters were met by flames shooting from the 22nd floor. They were also met by 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.

"They had a complete failure of all the fire protection systems and the electricity to the building, which allowed the fire to spread unchecked, said then-Fire Commissioner Roger Ulshafer at the time of the fire.

"We were at a disadvantage from the beginning."

Flames raced up to floors 23 and 24.

In the end, three firefighters would be lost: Captain David Holcomb and firefighters Phyllis McAllister and James Chappell of Engine 11. They were disoriented by smoke and perished.

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.

Fire officials say the most important lesson from the 19 hour blaze: Sprinklers save lives.

"There's no fire department in the world that can control a major fire in a high-rise building in an upper floor if the fire protection systems, and also the redundancies that are built into them all fail," said Ulshafer in 1991. "Everything failed very early."

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.

Related Topics:
philadelphia newsfireCenter City Philadelphia

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