Watch CBS News

20th Anniversary Of Tragic High-Rise Fire In Center City Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - Today marks the 20th anniversary of one of the worst fires in Philadelphia history.

The Meridian Plaza blaze killed three firefighters as it consumed the upper floors of a skyscraper right next to City Hall.

February 23rd, 1991 was a night that deputy fire chief Gerald Grover, now retired, will never forget.  He was at home watching the 11 o'clock news when he saw the beginnings of the 12-alarm fire.

"I thought to myself, I'm not gonna see one like this again -- I'd better go," he told KYW Newsradio recently.

And when Grover arrived at the fire scene, he immediately saw a big problem: not enough water, because the building standpipes were insufficiently pressured for the hoselines and nozzles being used, resulting in weak streams of water.

"(Roger) Ulshafer was the commissioner back then and he said to me, 'You got any ideas?' And I said, 'Listen, I think that street is close enough that we may be able to get some lines on the fire.' "

So Grover took firefighters to the 25th floor of an adjacent building, knocked out the windows, attached hoselines to two deck guns, and began shooting water on the fire from across 15th Street.

"And I left the fire around 7:30 the next morning, and I was walking up Market Street toward my car, and I was actually crying," Grover recalls. " Oh my god, what a physically demanding fire -- and emotionally draining because we lost those three firefighters.  It was just sad -- and not only with the firefighters, but because we were unable to successfully extinguish it the way we wanted to."

The fire burned for three days, and the brand-new building had to be torn down.

Another retired deputy fire chief, George Yaeger, recalls that the water pressure problem at the Meridian fire wasn't the only challenge that firefighters faced.

"Right before we started up, there was a loud pop and we lost all of the electricity to the building.  We lost the elevators, the lights," Yaeger recalls. They also lost the back-up fire pumps.

Things went from bad to worse on the fire floors, and conditions were brutally difficult for hours.

"They stretched five-inch (hose) line up 24 floors," Yaeger said.

Fire Lieutenant Vince Capizzi survived the fire, but just barely.  He had been assigned to try to locate some missing firefighters from Engine 11, but became trapped with other firefighters in a utility room.

"We were out of air at that time," Capizzi recalls, "so we were at the mercy of whatever was going to happen.  It was like a dream because we knew were losing some guys here and probably were going to lose more unless we were saved.  So we were in trouble."

And then, Capizzi says, acting battalion chief Jim McGarigal arrived at their makeshift bunker.

"It was like a vision, because when he opened the door there was a light that came through the door and all the smoke rushed in behind him. It was a sight to see," Capizzi recalls happily.

Capizzi says there was still an anxious half-hour ahead of them as a helicopter shuttled firefighters, a few at a time, from the rooftop to safety on the ground.

The three firefighters killed were captain David Holcombe, firefighter Phyllis McAllister and firefighter James A. Chappell.

Eventually, changes in the Philadelphia fire code would require more robust sprinkler systems and other fire suppression improvements in high-rise buildings.

Reported by Michelle Durham, KYW Newsradio 1060.

Hear Michelle Durham's entire four-part series on the 20th anniversary of the Meridian fire.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.