One Meridian Plaza (February 23, 1991)
William C. McDevitt, BAE/MAE, Penn State, 2010


On February 23, 1991, at approximately 8 o’clock in the evening, a fire broke out on the 22nd floor of the 38-story One Meridian Plaza building in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The ensuing blaze engulfed eight floors, grew to 12-alarms, and burned for more than 19 hours before it was finally extinguished by a tenant-installed automatic sprinkler system on the 30th floor. Three firefighters were killed, and 24 others were injured in what was, at the time, the largest high-rise office building fire in history. Investigations into the fire found that it was caused by the spontaneous combustion of a pile of linseed oil-soaked rags on the 22nd floor. The disaster was exacerbated because of a complete failure of the building's electrical system and the malfunction of the emergency generators, as well as inadequate water pressure at the standpipe hose outlets. Millions of dollars were lost in property damage and business interruption, but many lessons were learned and employed in future buildings. Because of this catastrophe, building engineers confirmed that automatic sprinklers do in fact work, all equipment penetrations must be fireproofed, and buildings and fire departments must have safety plans in place incase a disaster like this ever occurs again. In the end, One Meridian Plaza stood for years as an eye sore until structural safety concerns and lack of use led to its floor-by-floor deconstruction in 1999.

Key Words

One Meridian Plaza, High-rise, Fire, Automatic Sprinkler System, Spontaneous Combustion, Electrical System Failure, Standpipe, Pressure Reducing Valve, Deconstruction

Building Overview

One Meridian Plaza was a 38-story high-rise office building in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Located across from Philadelphia’s City Hall, it was originally constructed in 1972 as the headquarter building for the Girard Bank. By 1991 it housed 27 tenants, and was the regional headquarters for Meridian Bancorp, which occupied eight floors (Menkus 1992). The rectangular building was 243 feet long and 92 feet wide, and contained about 17,000 net usable square feet per floor. Refer to Figure 1 for a typical floor plan from One Meridian Plaza. The lower two floors of the tower were below grade, floors 12 and 38 housed mechanical equipment, and the roof contained access via two helipads. The building frame was structural steel with composite metal decking, and the structure was also joined on the east side by a connecting link and stairwell to the 34-story Girard Trust Building. In compliance with all codes available in 1972, the building was classified and fireproofed as equivalent to BOCA Type 1B construction (Chubb 1991). The structural steel was protected with spray-on fireproofing, and sprinklers were not required by code, so they were not installed. In 1984 Philadelphia adopted the National Building Code, which required that newly constructed buildings 75 feet high be fully sprinklered. One Meridian Plaza was grandfathered and not required to install sprinklers due to the high installation and retrofit costs (Post March 1991). By 1991, only nine floors of the building had working sprinkler systems. These systems had been installed at the request of the tenants occupying those levels (Mangan 1991).

Figure 1: 22nd Floor Plan (Chubb 1991)

The Fire

On February 23, 1991, at 8:23 PM, the lobby guard desk in One Meridian Plaza and the security company contracted to monitor the building were both alerted to a fire alarm on the 22nd floor. Suspicious, but unalarmed, neither the building occupants nor the security company notified the fire department. The building engineer, who was one of three people in the building, manually operated an elevator and took it to the 22nd floor. Upon arrival at the floor of interest, the elevator became trapped due to the dense smoke and heat. The engineer radioed one of the security guards in the lobby who was able to recall the elevator and save the engineer’s life. During this time the guard also alerted the security company that there was in fact a fire in the building (Chubb 1991).

The first call to the fire department came from a passerby on the street who noticed thick smoke billowing from a window in a nearby high-rise. At 8:27 PM, while a 9-1-1 operator was speaking with the passerby, the security company placed a call advising the Philadelphia Fire Department that One Meridian Plaza was experiencing a fire. The first alarm was sounded and four engine and two ladder companies, led by two battalion chiefs, arrived at the scene of the fire at 8:31 PM. The Philadelphia Fire Department had established guidelines of how to fight a high-rise fire in 1981, and therefore one battalion chief assumed control of the lobby, while the other organized an attack team to combat the fire. This team was to take the elevators to the 11th floor, and walk from there to reach the fire-stricken level.

As the firefighters began to make their assault on the fire they encountered various difficulties. During the early stages of the fight, intense heat and fire penetrated into an electrical room and caused a loss of power. Normally, this loss of power would trigger backup generators which would provide emergency power, but both of the generators in the building failed, and the firefighters were forced to combat the blaze without power. This meant that they had to climb all 22 stories with heavy gear, and the only source of light would be the battery powered lights on their helmets (Menkus 1992). Lack of water pressure and autoexposure were major problems during this fire. The standpipe systems located in the stairwells included pressure reducing valves that were improperly adjusted and provided an output pressure of about 60 pounds per square inch (psi). This output pressure was much lower than the 100 psi pressure required by the 1-3/4-ich hose-lines that were used. The result was weak water streams that necessitated a defensive approach to fighting the fire, and allowed it to spread quickly through autoexposure. Autoexposure occurred when fire lapped out of broken windows on the 22nd floor up the side of the building to the 23rd and 24th floors. Without the ability to extinguish the fire, the fire was able to spread further and further up the building. A final problem that plagued the firefighters was locked stairwell doors. These doors were locked for security reasons, and as firefighters reached the fire floors they were unable to obtain access. Time and energy had to be wasted in order to pry the doors open (Chubb 1991).

Due to the electrical system failure, the ventilation system that was in place to exhaust smoke from the stairwells was inactive. Heavy, dense smoke filled the stairwells, and made fighting the fire even more difficult. Therefore, a team of three firefighters was tasked to open a door or hatch at the top of the stairwells in order to provide some ventilation. Soon after this team made its way up the center stairwell they reported problems at about the 30th floor. They were granted permission to break a window to relieve the smoke, and a rescue team was dispatched from a lower floor. Unable to find the lost team, the rescue team became disoriented and had to also be rescued by a team that had landed on the roof. It was not until three or four hours later that the initial team was finally found, and even though resuscitation attempts were made, all three men were pronounced dead at the scene (Chubb 1991).

Eventually efforts were made to improve the firefighting and the quality of the water streams at the fire levels. Five-inch hoses-lines were carried up stairwells from ground level to the 24th floor starting at about 2:15 AM, nearly six hours after the start of the fire. Also, at some point during this time a sprinkler contractor with knowledge of the pressure reducing valves arrived and was able to adjust the valves to the correct setting, producing an ample water stream from the standpipe system. Unfortunately, both of these efforts were too late, as the fire had spread out of control. Because the fire had consumed multiple floors and structural damage and sagging was evident, the building was feared to collapse, and all firefighting efforts on the interior were abandoned at 7:00 AM on February 24th. Efforts continued on the exterior of the building from some surrounding high-rises, but the fire was ultimately quenched when it reached the 30th floor, where a tenant had installed ten automatic sprinkler heads. These sprinkler heads alone stopped the vertical spread of fire, and it was declared under control at 3:01 PM on February 24th (Chubb 1991). Figure 2, shown below, provides a view of how each level was affected by the fire.

Figure 2: Elevation Drawing of the Building (Chubb 1991)

Cause and Contributing Factors

The main cause of the fire at One Meridian Plaza was the spontaneous combustion of improperly stored linseed-oil soaked rags on the 22nd floor. Earlier in the day on February 23, workers hired by one of the building’s tenants had been refinishing wood wall paneling in some of the offices. Instead of properly storing the used rags in a code approved waste container, they were left piled together without sufficient ventilation. The rags generated heat and caught fire, and this fire then spread to other materials nearby (Post April 1991).

While the improper storage of linseed-oil soaked rags was the main cause of this fire, many other factors contributed to the destruction of nine floors and the death of three firefighters. These factors include:
  • Lack of working sprinkler systems
  • Initial delay in reporting a fire
  • Failure of the building’s electrical and mechanical systems and subsequent failure of the emergency generators
  • Inadequate water pressure at the standpipe hose outlets
  • Improper fireproofing of mechanical and electrical floor penetrations.


The fire at One Meridian Plaza resulted in a high-rise building with severe fire, smoke, and water damage, and an even worse public image. Figure 3 shows a view of the building from street level after the fire. On the inside, floors 22 through 29 were ravaged by fire and smoke, and the 30th floor did suffer some fire damage, but it was mostly spared by the automatic sprinklers. Most of the floors above the 30th floor had very bad smoke damage in the form of smell and soot, and water from the fire suppression efforts traveled downward, damaging the floors below the 22nd level. During the days following the fire electric service was restored, debris was cleared, deflected girders and beams were shored, and the exterior cladding that was damaged from the heat of the fire was removed and repaired. These tasks were immediately necessary for safety reasons, but it was determined that more work would need to be done to reoccupy the structure (Post May 1991).

Figure 3: One Meridian Plaza After the Fire (Chubb 1991)

Perhaps the greatest concern came from the actual structure of the building, and whether or not it was safe to occupy (Chubb 1991). Engineers concluded that the spray-on fireproofing had in fact done its job in protecting a majority of the structural steel (Fireproofing 1991). The columns of the building seemed unaffected by the fire and were supporting their loads without problem. However, girders and beams did sag from the heat of the fire, some as much as three feet as is shown in Figure 4. Cracks were noticed in the concrete floors and stairwell walls, and granite panels on the exterior of the building were damaged from the thermal expansion of the steel framing. Figure 5 shows one of these panels and how it was completely dislodged from the building.

Figure 4: Sagging Girders and Beams (Chubb 1991)

Figure 5: Dislodged Granite Panel (Chubb 1991)

Debate continued for years over whether or not to salvage the building. Some believed that it could be restored back to its original state, while others felt that it was a structural hazard and had to be torn down. One group felt that it was possible to tear down the building below the level damaged by the fire and then rebuild. In the end it was concluded that One Meridian Plaza was to be demolished. Implosion was considered, but ruled out due to a lack of space for debris. Instead it was decided that the building was to be deconstructed piece-by-piece. For eight years it sat vacant and unused, until 1999 when it was finally taken down at a cost of almost $24 million (Post June 1999).

Lessons Learned

A variety of lessons were learned from the events of February 23, 1991 and the fire at One Meridian Plaza. These include:
  • Automatic sprinkler systems do in fact work, and should be employed in all high-rise buildings
  • Electrical systems must have emergency backups that are both independent and redundant
  • All penetrations in fire-rated floors and walls must be fireproofed to prevent the spread of fire and/or smoke
  • Standpipe systems should be specially designed, installed, and checked for each individual building
  • Windows must be spaced far enough apart vertically to curtail the spread of fire through autoexposure
  • Buildings should have safety/evacuation plans in place in case of fire or other emergency, and these plans must be shared with the local fire department
  • Fire alarms should always be treated as if there is an actual fire or emergency, especially in high-rise buildings

Other Notable High-Rise Fires

First Interstate Bank Building - Los Angeles, California

On May 4, 1998, the 62-story First Interstate Bank Building in Los Angeles, California experienced a devastating fire that damaged five of the building’s floors before it was brought under control. It is thought that the fire was the result of an electrical malfunction, but the cause was actually never determined. The building was in the process of being retrofit with an automatic sprinkler system, which had been installed in about 90 percent of the building, but was not operational at the time of the fire. Security personnel dismissed initial fire and smoke alarms, which delayed the response of the fire department by almost 15 minutes. Also contributing to the spread of the fire was the large quantity of combustible materials on each floor, equipment penetrations and other openings, and a standpipe system that had been shut down due to the sprinkler installation. Firefighters were also forced to battle dangerous conditions that were created by the failure of the glass façade and its subsequent fall to the ground below. The fire was eventually extinguished with the internal standpipe system, but not before one death and over 50 million dollars worth of damage (Routley 1988).

Schomburg Plaza - New York, New York

The fire at Schomburg Plaza was unusual in the fact that it originated in the upper sections of a trash chute that serviced the 35-story apartment building. The March 22, 1987 fire started somewhere between the 27th and 29th floors, and then traveled up the trash chute and through the walls into surrounding apartments. Investigations following the fire found that sprinklers in the chute either failed to work because they were clogged, or were not actually connected to the piping system. It was also determined that the building was not built according to its plans, and therefore certain areas did not meet the two hour fire rating required by code. A final issue was the initial response to the fire and the misconception that it was a common compactor fire, as had been seen several times before. Neither firefighters, nor dispatchers realized the severity of the fire, and initially believed that it was under control, which created an even more dangerous situation. As a result of this fire, seven people lost their lives (Schaenman 1987).

High-Rise Condominium - Clearwater, Florida

A more recent high-rise fire occurred on June 28, 2002, in an 11-story condominium building in Clearwater, Florida. The fire originated in the kitchen of a fifth floor apartment, and instead of pulling the fire alarm and alerting the fire department, the tenant tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire. This delay allowed the blaze to grow for 17 minutes before the fire department was even notified. As firefighters arrived on the scene they encountered several problems, including radio communication issues, closed standpipe riser valves, and a damaged fire hydrant. Another issue was that some building residents ignored fire alarms and failed to evacuate, believing that it was false alarm. The building was not equipped with an automatic sprinkler system, and therefore several units and the central hallway were heavily damaged by fire, smoke, and water before the blaze was declared under control. In the end two people were killed and many more were injured. The tragedy resulted in one million dollars worth of damage and the installation of an automatic sprinkler system (Miller 2002).


Chubb, Mark, Charles Jennings, J. Gordon Routley (1991). "Highrise Office Building Fire - One Meridian Plaza." U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
This is FEMA's detailed technical report regarding the fire at One Meridian Plaza.

Craighead, Geoff (2009). High-Rise Security and Fire Life Safety, Third Edition, Elsevier Inc., p 137.
A comprehensive book detailing fire life safety and security operations in high-rise buildings.

Mangan, Joseph F. (October 1991). "The Fire Safety Lessons from One Meridian Plaza." Best's Review, Vol. 92, Issue 6, p70-72.
A look into the various lessons that should be taken from the One Meridian Plaza fire, and practices that should be implemented in future high-rise construction.

Menkus, Belden (1992). "A High Rise Building Fire Case Study." Computers and Security, Vol. 11, Issue 1, p19-23.
This article discusses some of the background information concerning One Meridian Plaza, the impact the disaster had on various businesses, and different response plans that should be put into effect to limit the impact of future
disasters in high-rise buildings.

Miller, Thomas H., J. Gordon Routley (2002). “Multiple Fatality Highrise Condominium Fire.” U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
This is FEMA's detailed technical report regarding a fire in a highrise condominium in Clearwater, Florida.

Post, Nadine M. (April 22, 1991). "Linseed Oil-Soaked Rags Triggered High-Rise Fire." Engineering News-Record, 226(16).
An article describing the cause of the One Meridian Plaza fire and lawsuits that were filed in the following months.

Post, Nadine M. (June 7, 1999). "Burnt Tower Slowly Eliminated." Engineering News-Record, 242(22).
This article discusses the deconstruction of One Meridian Plaza.

Post, Nadine M. (March 4, 1991). "Repair Possible for Charred Tower." Engineering News-Record, 226(9).
In this article the possibility of repairing One Meridian Plaza is discussed, and information about sprinklers and fireproofing is provided.

Post, Nadine M. (May 6, 1991). "Emergency Fix Will Take Time." Engineering News-Record, 226(18).
This article provides details of why occupants of One Meridian Plaza were unable to enter the building after the fire, and it also presents facts on the building's structural components.

Routley, J. Gordon (1988). “Interstate Bank Building Fire.” U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
This is FEMA's detailed technical report regarding the fire at First Interstate Bank Building.

Schaenman, Philip (1987). “Schomburg Plaza Fire.” U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
This is FEMA's detailed technical report regarding the fire at Schomburg Plaza.

(December 16, 1991). "No Charges Resulting from Deadly High-Rise Fire." Engineering News-Record, 227(24).
A short article noting that no criminal charges were filed as a result of the fire at One Meridian Plaza.

(March 11, 1991). "Fireproofing Did Its Job." Engineering News-Record, 226(10).
This article presents facts on the structural components of One Meridian Plaza.