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Water Supply Problems

The normal attack hose lines used by the Philadelphia Fire Department incorporate 1 3/4-inch hose lines with automatic fog nozzles designed to provide variable gallonage at 100 psi nozzle pressure. The pressure reducing valves in the standpipe outlets provided less than 60 psi discharge pressure, which was insufficient to develop effective fire streams. The pressure reducing values (PRVs) were field adjustable using a special tool. However, not until several hours into the fire did a technician knowledgeable in the adjustment technique arrive at the fire scene and adjust the pressure on several of the PRVs in the stairways.

When the PRVs were originally installed, the pressure settings were improperly adjusted. Index values marked on the valves did not correspond directly to discharge pressures. To perform adjustments the factory and field personnel had to refer to tables in printed installation instructions to determine the proper setting for each floor level.4 For more detailed information about PRVs see Appendices D and E.

Several fire department pumpers were connected to the Fire Department connections to the standpipe system in an attempt to increase the water pressure. The improperly set PRVs effectively prevented the increased pressure in the standpipes from being discharged through the valves. The limited water supply prevented significant progress in fighting the fire and limited interior forces to operating from defensive positions in the stairwells. During the next hour the fire spread to the 23rd and 24th floors primarily through autoexposure, while firefighters were unable to make entry onto these floors due to deteriorating heat and smoke conditions and the lack of water pressure in their hose lines. Windows on the 22nd floor broke out and the 23rd and 24th floor windows were subject to autoexposure from flames lapping up the sides of the building.

On the street below pedestrians were cleared from the area because of falling glass and debris as more and more windows were broken out by the fire. Additional hose lines were connected to the standpipe connections, attempting to boost the water pressure in the system. However, the design of the PRVs did not allow the higher pressures to reach the interior hose streams. Additional alarms were requested to bring a five-alarm assignment to the scene.

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Three Firefighters Lost

As firefighters attempted to make entry to the burning floors from the stairways, heavy smoke continued to build up within the stair shafts and banked down from the upper floors. An engine company was assigned to attempt to open a door or hatch to ventilate the stairways at the roof level to allow the smoke and heat to escape. A Captain and two firefighters from Engine 11 started up the center stair from the 22nd floor with this assignment. Engine 11 subsequently radioed that they had left the stairway and were disoriented in heavy smoke on the 30th floor. Attempts were made to direct the crew by radio to one of the other stairways.

Shortly thereafter a radio message was received at the Command Post from Engine 11’s Captain requesting permission to break a window for ventilation. This was followed moments later by a message from a crew

The pressure reducing valves in the vicinity of the fire floor (floors 18 through 20) were set at “80” on the valve index which corresponded to a discharge pressure between 55 and 57 psi, depending on the elevation. This would provide a nozzle pressure of 40 to 45 psi at the end of a 150 to 200 foot hose line. member of Engine 11 reporting that “the Captain is down.” Approval was given to break the window and rescue efforts were initiated to search for the crew. Search teams were sent from below and a helicopter was requested to land a team on the roof. The search teams were able to reach the 30th floor, which was enveloped in heavy smoke, but were unable to find the missing firefighters. They then searched the floors above without success. An eight member search team became disoriented and ran out of air in the mechanical area on the 38th floor, while trying to find an exit to the roof. They were rescued by the team that had landed on the roof and were transported back to ground level by the helicopter.

Several attempts were made to continue the search, until helicopter operations on the rooftop had to be suspended due to the poor visibility and the thermal drafts caused by the heat of the fire. The helicopter crew then attempted an exterior search, using the helicopter’s searchlight, and at 0117 located a broken window on the southeast comer of the 28th floor, in an area that could not be seen from any of the surrounding streets. Another rescue team was assembled and finally located the three missing member just inside the broken window on the 28th floor at approximately 0215. At that time the fire was burning on the 24th and 25th floors and extending to the 26th.

The victims were removed to the Medical Triage Area on the 20th floor, but resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful and they were pronounced dead at the scene. An estimated three to four hours had elapsed since they had reported that they were in trouble and all had succumbed to smoke inhalation.’

The three deceased members of Engine Company 11 were Captain David P. Holcombe (age 52), Firefighter Phyllis McAllister (43), and Firefighter James A. Chappell (29).

Prior to being assigned to this task, the crew had walked up to the fire area wearing their full protective clothing and SCBAs and carrying extra equipment. It is believed that they started out with full SCBA cylinders, but it is not known if they became disoriented from the heavy

5 The exact time that Engine 11 was assigned to attempt ventilation and the time the crew reported they were in trouble are not known, since the tactical radio channel they were using is not recorded and detailed time records of this event were not maintained during the incident. Estimates from individuals who were involved suggest that the assignment was made between 2130 and 2200 hours and search efforts were initiated between 2200 and 2230 hours. The bodies were located at approximately 0215 hours. smoke in the stairway, encountered trouble with heat build-up, or were exhausted by the effort of climbing 28 floors. Some combination of these factors could have caused their predicament. Unfortunately, even after breaking the window they did not find relief from the smoke conditions which were extremely heavy in that part of the building.

Continuing Efforts to Improve Water Supply

Because of the difficulty in obtaining an adequate water supply, a decision was made to stretch 5-inch lines up the stairs to supply interior attack lines. The first line was stretched up the west (#l) stairwell to the 24th floor level and was operational by 0215, approximately six hours into the fire. At 0221, a 12th alarm was sounded to stretch a second line, in the center (#2) stair. At 0455, a third 5-inch line was ordered stretched, in the east (#3) stair. The operation in the east stair was discontinued at the 17th /floor level at 0600. While the 5-inch lines were being stretched, a sprinkler contractor arrived at the scene and began manually adjusted the pressure reducing valves on the standpipe connections. This improved the discharge pressure in the hoses supplied by the standpipe system, finally providing normal handline streams for the interior fire suppression crews. At this point, however, the fire involved several floors and could not be contained with manual hose streams.

Firefighting Operations Suspended

All interior firefighting efforts were halted after almost 11 hours of uninterrupted fire in the building. Consultation with a structural engineer and structural damage observed by units operating in the building led to the belief that there was a possibility of a pancake structural collapse of the fire damaged floors. Bearing this risk in mind along with the loss of three personnel and the lack of progress against the fire despite having secured adequate water pressure and flow for interior fire streams, an order was given to evacuate the building at 0700 on February 24. At the time of the evacuation, the fire appeared to be under control on the 22nd though 24th floors. It continued to bum on floors 25 and 26 and was spreading upward. There was a heavy smoke condition throughout most of the upper floors. The evacuation was completed by 0730.

After evacuating the building, portable master streams directed at the fire building from several exposures, including the Girard Building #l and One Centre Plaza, across the street to the west were the only firefighting efforts left in place.

Fire Stopped

The fire was stopped when it reached the 30th floor, which was protected by automatic sprinklers. As the fire ignited in different points this floor level through the floor assembly and by autoexposure through the windows, 10 sprinkler heads activated and the fires were extinguished at each point of penetration. The vertical spread of the fire was stopped solely by the action of the automatic sprinkler system, which was being supplied by Fire Department pumpers. The 30th floor was not heavily damaged by fire, and most contents were salvageable. The fire was declared under control at 3:Ol p.m., February 24, 1991.

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