Memorial marks loss of 3 Philly firefighters

By Dave Davies
The Philadelphia Daily News

PHILADELPHIA — Some memories are painful.

Like the frigid night of Feb. 23, 1991, when the 38-story One Meridian office tower in Center City caught fire and became a nightmarish scene of acrid smoke, searing heat and falling glass, leading to tragic loss and heroic rescue.

Photo courtesy of The Memorial CommitteeThe memorial honoring the firefighters.

Photo courtesy of The Memorial Committee
The memorial honoring the firefighters.

The sacrifice of three Philadelphia firefighters who perished that night — David Holcombe, Phyllis McAllister and James Chappell — will be honored today with the unveiling of a memorial at the site, now occupied by the Residences at the Ritz Carlton.

The Meridian fire brought personal tragedy, civic trauma and commercial rebirth to Philadelphia. It led to reforms in the city's fire code, bitter lawsuits, the blight of a burned-out hulk looming over Dilworth Plaza, and eventually the development of a new luxury condo tower.

Firefighters who survived the ordeal will never forget it.

Vince Capizzi, 32 at the time, remembers climbing 20 flights of stairs to reach the fire because emergency power systems had failed, leaving firefighters without elevators.

Capizzi attached his hose to standpipes that should have provided a torrent of water to begin fighting the fire, and moved toward the blaze.

"It was dark. There were flames and heavy smoke everywhere and intense heat, maybe 1,000 degrees," Capizzi said.

When he opened the nozzle on his hose, Capizzi said, water "squirted like a garden hose. It was wetting the floor, that's about it."

The standpipes' valves had been improperly set, making them worthless for fighting the blaze, a critical failure that left firefighters lugging hoses up 20 flights from the street while the fire grew to 12 alarms and moved through upper floors of the building.

Firefighter Glenn Johnson was on the ground and remembers that windows began shattering hundreds of feet above and "the glass was coming down, and cutting the hoses."

The severed hoses were replaced and covered with plywood, but that only further delayed firefighting efforts.

Meanwhile, another problem had to be addressed. The stair towers, which provided the only access to fight the fire, were filling with smoke and someone had to climb them to open their rooftop doors for ventilation.

Firefighters Holcombe, McAllister and Chappell ascended the stairs with air packs designed to give them 30 to 45 minutes of breathing in a smoke-filled environment.

But they never made it to the top. Holcombe radioed commanders and said that the trio was in trouble, on the 30th floor and running out of air.

Two teams were dispatched to rescue them. Neither was successful, in part because the three firefighters, likely fighting carbon-monoxide poisoning, had reported the wrong location.

Their bodies would eventually be found together on the 28th floor.

One of the rescue teams, including Capizzi, eventually found itself trapped above the fire in a smoke-filled room on the 38th floor, desperately trying to find a way to the roof above.

"There was a roof hatch, but it was locked with a dead bolt, and shouldn't have been," Capizzi said.

"By then I was out of air," Capizzi said. "We knew if we didn't find a way out of there we would die. We just tried to stay low and get as much air as we could. I was thinking about my wife and kids."

Salvation came from above.

Firefighter Jim McGarrigle was on the roof, deposited there by the PennStar ambulance helicopter operated by the University of Pennsylvania, which Fire Commissioner Roger Ulshafer had summoned.

The chopper had taken McGarrigle and others there to open the doors from the outside to ventilate the stair towers.

McGarrigle was in radio contact with Capt. Mike Yaeger, one of the trapped firefighters, and managed to descend stairs from the roof and find the room the rescue team was trapped in.

"When he opened that door, his light was like a vision, and all the smoke rushed out the door," Capizzi said.

"One of the guys said I was God," McGarrigle recalled. "He said he just came toward the light."

When they got to the roof, Capizzi remembers seeing the reflection of the fire on the windows of nearby buildings, and realizing it had engulfed many more floors. The blaze would eventually gut nine stories.

McGarrigle remembered that after they loaded Capizzi and his rescue team onto the chopper he had to lie flat and clutch the roof to keep from being blown off by the updraft.

Engineers eventually got the building's standpipe working, but it was too late. Commanders decided to let the fire burn until it reached the 30th floor, which had a working sprinkler system.

It burned for 19 hours.

Investigators would eventually conclude that the fire was caused by the spontaneous combustion of oily rags left behind by a cleaning crew working on wood paneling in a 22nd floor office.

Ulshafer pressed for a tougher fire code and within a year City Council enacted legislation requiring sprinkler systems on every floor in office towers, though owners of existing buildings had up to five years to install them.

District Attorney Lynne Abraham found no criminal neglect in the fire, but a tangle of lawsuits among the building's owners, tenants and insurers went on for years.

For eight years, the burned-out hulk stood as a civic eyesore and ghastly reminder of the tragedy. Only when the building's owners settled a claim with their insurance company for close to $300 million could the building come down.

Because of its location, it had to be dismantled floor by floor. Crews finally took it to the ground just before the turn of the millennium in December 1999.

Firefighter Jack Bloomer, now 60, drove Engine Company Nine from its station at 6th and South streets to the fire that day, carrying Holcombe, McAllister and Chappell.

He returned to the firehouse alone.

Because he was the driver, he was assigned to stay with the truck while the other three ascended the tower. If the fire had started on a different shift, he recalled yesterday, McAllister would have driven and Bloomer would have been in the dark inferno with Holcombe and Chappell.

"Never a day goes by when I don't think of those guys," he said.

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