Nine-Alarm Fire Threatened Philadelphia’s Center City

Nine-Alarm Fire Threatened Philadelphia’s Center City


Pre-plan, accurate size up, and an aggressive defensive initial attack were key factors in firefighters’ ability to confine this major incident to one square block.

The hazardous nature of buildings undergoing major renovations or demolition was again made evident when on May 3,1984, a 90-year-old building in Philadelphia, PA, was completely destroyed and 18 other buildings along with 63 vehicles were damaged.

To bring this incident under control required the commitment of 224 firefighters and command personnel manning 38 engine companies, 6 ladder companies, and 3 rescue squads. An additional 10 engine and ladder companies handled alarms received as a result of flying brands, investigated for smoke within high-rise buildings, and responded to water flow alarms caused by fluctuations in water pressure.

Nine alarms were struck, and firefighters fought the fire for 2 hours and 58 minutes before Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond could declare the incident under control.

This fire occurred in the Harrison Court building in the heart of the retail section of center city and posed four strategic factors of enormous proportions:

The tremendous radiant heat exposure problem facing Philadelphia firefighters is evident here as the mall exposure, 22 feet away, begins to cook.”
  • The safe evacuation of approximately 25,000 shoppers and employees from the Gallery 11 complex, an enclosed multi-level shopping mall with over 100 shops, plus the J.C. Penney department store, covering an entire city block and linked to the main gallery complex (see map). The evacuation was accomplished by the cooperative efforts of police, building security, and fire units.
  • Photos by William Carlson

  • The prevention of extension into stores. The mall and the fire building were separated by Filbert Street, 22’⅛ feet wide.
  • The evacuation of a multi-tenanted eight-story’ building on Arch. Street, as well as eleven other occupancies on Arch and 10th Streets.
  • The control of fire extending into the rear of these properties. The eight-story Winston building, at the rear of the Harrison building, was separated by Cuthbert Street, which is about 12 feet wide

All endangered civilians were evacuated successfully without incident or injury. The fire, the fastest spreading, most intense that 1 ever witnessed, was contained within the defense perimeter originally established on the four streets surrounding the fire building. Local news media reported that flames were visible over the roof of a 32-story office tower nearby. This uncompleted high-rise suffered glass breakage at the thirtieth floor due to the intensity of the thermal column’s radiant heat. Although this fire may have indeed been spectacular, reliance on basics was responsible for attainment of our objectives:

  • Extremely adequate initial size up.
  • Defensive large caliber line placement.
  • Prompt calls for assistance.
  • Life exposure protection, evacuation, search, and extension control.
  • Excellent communication on the fireground.

The fire building

The Harrison building, a six-story brick and steel structure with wooden floors, was 300 X 135 feet, covering all but a small portion of Filbert Street. The developer had intended to remove the center section, creating an atrium-type building that would house offices and shops. Therefore, at the time of the fire, interior partitions above the first floor had been removed, leaving a series of open shaftways. The horizontal openings on each floor and the numerous vertical openings created a block-long test crib configuration. Also, fixed fire protection systems (standpipes and sprinklers) had been removed from this section.

Firefighters had extinguished two minor fires previously in this building and, as a result, a pre-plan was formulated. This pre-plan, which includes apparatus positioning, was the subject of training exercises for first alarm companies.

The fire

The box alarm on 10th and Arch Streets was received in fire stations throughout the city at 1:44 p.m. Four engine companies, two ladder companies, two battalion chiefs, and a rescue unit responded. Acting Lieutenant Charles Armstrong, arriving on location, reported heavy fire coming from the first floor center of the building and instructed each engine to hook up to a hydrant and supply large caliber streams with 3V2-inch lines. I arrived shortly after and, made aware of the conditions within the building and noting that the fire now had spread to the second floor, ordered a second alarm transmitted at 1:47 p.m.

Five engine companies, one ladder company, two battalion chiefs, the department’s mobile communication unit, and Acting Deputy Chief James Meskill responded. The last due engine company and the second battalion chief were assigned as the water supply company and the water liaison officer.

Reports from the rear of the Harrison building indicated involvement of the third floor of the fire building. Fire was also traveling horizontally throughout the rear portion of the structure.

The first signs of fire extension to the eight-story Winston building were reported. Recognizing the potential for extension to all the immediate exposures, a third and fourth alarm were transmitted simultaneously at 1:50 p.m., bringing eight more engine companies, one ladder company and one battalion chief.

On-scene police, security guards, and firefighters were pressed into service to assist in evacuating the immediate exposures. Master streams were positioned (see map). Uninvolved portions of the original fire building filled with heavy black smoke. A fifth alarm was requested at 1:52 p.m. One minute later, a sixth alarm was ordered. Transmission of these two alarms brought eight additional engine companies. At this point, the entire building was fully involved.

The fully involved structure caused radiation and flying brand extension several blocks away.Exterior exposure protection coupled with aggressive interior firefighting saved most of the buildings in the foreground.

Photos by William Carlson

As the fire structure collapses, it eliminates the major source of radiation. The exterior streams swing from exposure protection to extinguishment.

The fifth and sixth alarm units arrived and were ordered to proceed to the Gallery II complex to assist in evacuations and to stretch lines to the north wall. Both the mall and the Winston building were sprinklered and these systems were pressurized by engines at the scene. Battalion Chief Robert Hoeffel assumed command inside the Gallery, and Battalion Chief Bruce Cowden assumed command inside the Winston building.

Chief Meskill found Filbert Street to be a sea of flames, with fire going over the roof of the Gallery II mall and its western anchor, the J.C. Penney department store. The exterior face of this mall, facing the southern exposure of the fire building, was becoming dangerously heated. The rear of all exposures on both Arch and 10th Streets faced a similar exposure problem. A seventh alarm was requested at 1:55 p.m. and all incoming units were ordered into Penney’s and Gallery II.

Seven minutes later, Chief Meskill ordered the eighth alarm with all companies being directed to the northern exposures to augment heavily engaged fire forces. Shortly after the arrival of Commissioner Richmond, a ninth alarm was ordered. These last three alarms brought 12 more engine companies plus two additional rescue squads.

Commissioner Richmond, operating from the initial command post at 10th and Filbert Streets, assigned Deputy Fire Commissioner Donald Patton to take command of the west side of the fire at 11th Street, and Deputy Fire Commissioner Frank Scipione to coordinate efforts in the exposures on Arch Street as well as the northern portion of 10th Street.

While the original fire building was completely involved, the exposures on all flanks were subjected to a tremendous attack of radiant heat and direct flame. Units inside Gallery II reported that intense heat conditions had activated a large amount of sprinkler heads on all floors. Chief Hoeffel reported that the combination of fused sprinkler heads and l%-inch handlines in service would be able to prevent further interior extension.

The exterior skin at the rear of this building consisted of steel panels backed by an insulating medium. These panels, discolored and distorted by heat, pulled away from the building and fell to the ground. Gaps in the insulation permitted a minimal amount of fire to enter the building. Chief Cowden in the Winston building had companies on each of the eight floors to extinguish fires around plywood covered window fans. He also reported that the windows, which were wire glass, were holding up well and that the combination of l%-inch handlines and sprinklers were successful in limiting interior extension.

Another immediate exposure to the north of the fire building was the rear of a row of four-story commercial properties. Master streams from deluge guns, aerial platforms and Squirts (cooling the exterior) as well as l -inch hose lines (for an intensive interior attack) limited the spread of fire in these occupancies. This combination attack was successful in most of the exposures; however, interior operations had to be abandoned in a novelty supply outlet on Arch Street. The property was heavily fire loaded in the rear, and interior collapse completely destroyed the structure early in the fire fight.

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The Harrison building was not able to withstand the effects of the fire for long. After 20 minutes of firefighting operations, the Filbert Street side of the building began to collapse. Within minutes, the south and east portions of the structure had been reduced from six stories to two stories. Early collapse removed the threat of fire extension to exposures. Master streams that had been used on these exposures were able to be redeployed to quickly extinguish most of the visible fire within the Harrison building. The emphasis now shifted to an aggressive offensive strategy in extinguishing the remaining fires within the exposure. Fire Commissioner Richmond declared the fire under control at 4:42 p.m.

Although collapse of the fire building was early and extensive, no department vehicles were damaged. One tower pumper received minor paint blistering, plastic lenses melted, and three air cylinder cases were destroyed. Two other vehicles also had reflectors melted. Loss to hose lines and fittings was minimal. Seven department members received minor injuries.

Although this fire may have indeed been spectacular, reliance on the basics was responsible for attainment of our objectives.


This fire, with few exceptions, was confined to one square block. The key factors for this were:

  1. Recognition of the extension and loss potential.
    1. Pre-plan of target hazard
    2. Accurate size up
    3. Immediate use of 3*/2-inch hose lines for development of defensive large caliber master streams.*
  2. Quick call for additional alarms.
  3. ♦Philadelphia has a system of high pressure fire hydrants capable of supplying a large volume of water at pressures adequate for firefighting without the use of pumpers. This system operated at 153 psi during the firefighting operation and fed numerous 3’/2-inch lines. This system is found in the mill and high-value sections of the city.

  4. Efficient placement of 29 master streams for exposure control.
  5. Use of manpower pools after initial set up of master streams. Company members not required for operating streams were grouped into work parties and assisted incoming companies in placing additional appliances and making an interior attack in exposed properties.
  6. Fixed fire suppression and detection systems in the major exposures.
    1. Automatic sprinklers in the Gallery II complex and the Winston building
    2. Shut down of fresh air intakes and reversal of air flow by the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems in the Gallery II complex. It should be noted that the shopping area was substantially smoke free and stores reopened the next day.
  7. Aggressive interior operations within exposed buildings to supplement exterior containment efforts.

This fire, occurring in the tightly congested center city area, provided a major challenge to the Philadelphia Fire Department. A fireground detail remained on location until 6:30 p.m. on May 7, 1984. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

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