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The Meridian fire 25 years later: 'You don't forget defeats'

Young firefighters, fresh out of the academy, used to ask Lenny Worthy about the plaque on the wall of his North Philadelphia firehouse, the one with the photos of the Center City skyscraper enveloped in flames.

Philadelphia Fire Department Lt. Robert Buckley during an aftermath inspection on Feb. 24, 1991.
Philadelphia Fire Department Lt. Robert Buckley during an aftermath inspection on Feb. 24, 1991.Read moreRick Bowmer, File

Young firefighters, fresh out of the academy, used to ask Lenny Worthy about the plaque on the wall of his North Philadelphia firehouse, the one with the photos of the Center City skyscraper enveloped in flames.

Worthy prefers not to talk too much about what happened at One Meridian Plaza on Feb. 23, 1991. About what happened to his friends there. About what he found on the 28th floor.

But he would always spare a few minutes for the rookies. He thought they needed to know.

On a crisp February night 25 years ago, a bucket of linseed oil-soaked cleaning rags burst into flames on the 22nd floor of One Meridian Plaza, a high-rise office building on 15th Street across from City Hall.

It should have been easy to reach and easy to put out. But most of the building had no sprinklers. And the fire burned so hot that it fried the building's electrical grid, stalling the elevators.

While firefighters lugged hoses up dozens of flights of stairs, through darkness and smoke, into flames that burned deep orange and bright blue, the fire raged out of control.

In the chaos, Capt. David Holcombe, 52, and Firefighters Phyllis McAllister, 43, and James Chappell, 29, sent out a call over the radio. They were lost, somewhere on the upper floors. They wanted permission to break a window to get some air.

It was the last any of the firefighters below heard from them.

The Meridian fire raged through 12 alarms and long into the next day. Firefighters were ordered out that morning - officials were worried the building would collapse. The fire burned until a sprinkler system on the 30th floor finally doused it.

For nearly a decade, the Meridian's burned-out hulk marred Center City. It would become, for many firefighters, a symbol of all that could go wrong on the job, the worst-case scenario brought to life and left to rot right in the middle of their city.

It turned up, draped in plywood, in a background shot in the movie Philadelphia. It was the subject of a slew of lawsuits and the catalyst for a law requiring all nonresidential skyscrapers to install sprinkler systems. The Inquirer published editorials calling it an eyesore, a symbol of the city's dysfunction, "a vertical slum."

Finally, in 1999, the Vincent Kling & Associates-designed tower was torn down and replaced with a luxury apartment building that installed a memorial to the fallen firefighters out front. In the bustle of a revived and thriving Center City, the statue of three bronze firefighters' helmets is easy to overlook. But those who fought the fire never do.

Worthy would tell his rookies that everyone on the job has a "fire story" - a story about the worst fire they'd ever seen, the biggest, the scariest, the most tragic.

For a generation of Philadelphia's firefighters, the Meridian was that fire.

"You'd figure you'd be over the emotions - but the Meridian was a defeat," Worthy said. "And you don't forget defeats."

"Ominous feeling"

Firefighter Armund Dezii had "this ominous feeling" from the moment his company pulled up to One Meridian Plaza on the third alarm.

"Everything was wrong about it," he said.

He remembers lugging equipment up 20 flights of stairs, then running back down to do it all over again. He remembers windows shattering in the heat. He remembers stepping out the front doors and hearing a chorus of voices screaming at him to run.

Dezii dove for cover. An enormous plateglass window slammed onto the spot where he had been standing.

He remembers hearing Holcombe's last transmission and the silence afterward. He knew what that meant.

The silence

Capt. Mike Yaeger remembers that silence, too. He listened to it as he climbed to the 30th, 31st, and 32nd floors on a search-and-rescue team sent for Holcombe, McAllister, and Chappell. He remembers finding nothing, on floor after floor, and resolutely not thinking about what that meant.

"You can't get wrapped up in it," he said.

On the 38th floor, he and his own men became trapped. He remembers groping through the smoke.

He was leading eight men on the search, and there was a half-bottle of oxygen left among them - 15 minutes' worth, if they were lucky.

Yaeger talks about these things in clipped sentences and terse detail.

He assigns one word to all he felt when rescuers found his team choking in the smoke on the 38th floor and led them out onto the roof: "Relief."

Recalling lost friends

Worthy would tell the rookies about his friends Phyllis McAllister and James Chappell. He and McAllister drove to work together sometimes, and McAllister's son played on the youth football team that Worthy coached. Chappell had been a firefighter for just three years and was still "happy-go-lucky," Worthy said, a relaxed young man settling into the job.

Worthy knew his friends were missing when he was assigned to battle the flames on the 24th floor. In the unbearable heat, Worthy forgot that the fire was inanimate. It felt alive, like it was coming for him.

Then, as Yaeger's team looked for Holcombe and his men on the upper floors, Worthy and his company joined the search.

On the 28th floor, he tripped over Chappell's body.

Years later, he would tell the rookies how it felt to clamber down all those flights of stairs, carrying his friends.

More could have died

Worthy, Yaeger, and Dezii have more than 90 years of firefighting experience among them. The Meridian fire was the only one they ever left burning.

All three know they could have been a fourth casualty: Yaeger, trapped on the top floor; Worthy, in the flames on the 24th; Dezii, crushed by falling glass.

"It's something I'll never forget," said Dezii, who retired in 2005 and lives in Delray Beach, Fla. "But you have to isolate yourself from situations like that. You'll go crazy if you get personally involved."

Yaeger was struck by the silence among firefighters after tragedies like the Meridian fire. How there was an unspoken agreement to "suck it up and be a man."

"Back in the day," he said, "you weren't talking to nobody."

Just before Yaeger retired in 2013, a friend of his in the department committed suicide. Yaeger has worked with a peer support group for firefighters ever since.

Worthy retired three years after the memorial honoring his friends was unveiled at the site of the Meridian fire.

That memorial is for the dead. But Worthy, who has saved every battered, soot-stained helmet he wore on the job, carries his memories for the living.

The rookies who listened to his stories of that night are seasoned firefighters now. He would tell them, when they were younger, what happened after he helped carry his friends down the stairs. How he laid them out in a small room on the first floor. How he and his company just sat there, until a fire official found them and asked if they could go back upstairs to rejoin the fight.

"He said, 'Can you continue?' " Worthy recalled. "And we said, 'Well, yeah. This is what we do. We can go on.' "

215-854-2961 @aubreyjwhelan