The Freedom Valley Chronicles:
Plymouth Meeting Mall Fire - Part Three
January 12, 2018
The fire at the Plymouth Meeting Mall on January 10, 1970, is remembered by many that were living in the Freedom Valley at that time. The children, in particular, recall what happened that day. Today, as adults in their 50’s and 60’s, they reflect back on that winter day.
“I remember the fire very well. While I was only 9 years- old, I remember it was a very cold day and my father telling me he was called into work. He worked for the Plymouth Township Highway Department. He told me that the Plymouth Meeting Mall was on fire, and he was needed to salt the roads and parking lots surrounding the Mall. At that time, we lived on Butler Pike in Plymouth Township. I could hear the fire trucks from all over the area responding to the fire. Looking towards the Mall, I could see the plume of smoke billowing into the sky. I recall going to the Mall several weeks following the fire after the un-burned portion of the Mall was re-opened. I saw the devastation that the fire had caused. A plywood wall was constructed to partition the burned out area off from the section that had re-opened. Plexiglas viewing windows were placed in the wall. You could see the devastation that the fire caused and watch the subsequent re-building process.”
Centre Square Fire Company
Blue Bell, Pennsylvania
"I totally remember. I heard about the fire several times on the radio. It was too cold that day to go outside, so we kids were inside. My mom used to keep the radio on all day. I lived in Glenside at the time and was a seventh grade student at Cedarbrook Junior High School in Wyncote in Cheltenham Township. My grandmother lived in Lafayette Hill. We went often to the Mall."
Joanne Colmery Mahoney
“It was a very cold day. I knew something terrible was happening, but at 10 years of age, I did not know the extent of the damage. I could see the black smoke in the air from where I was – a couple miles away in Norristown. When the Mall re-opened, we went and could look through windows in a wall that had been built inside the Mall. It was near the Woolworth store. On one side – where we stood – the Mall was just as it had been. On the other side of the wall, you could see the damage done by the fire.”
“At the time of the fire, I was a senior at the Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School. I wanted to be a fire fighter, but because I was only 17 years of age, I had to wait until I turned 18. (The Barren Hill Fire Company required all of its members to be 18 years of age.) The efforts of the fire fighters of Barren Hill and the other fire companies at the Plymouth Meeting Mall Fire confirmed to me that I wanted to proceed and become a fire fighter myself. I was able to join the Barren Hill Fire Company a few months later – in May of 1970. Shortly afterwards, I went into the military for four years and served in Vietnam. I remain a proud member of the Barren Hill Fire Company and, for many years, proudly served as a career fire fighter with the City of Philadelphia.”
Barren Hill Fire Company
Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania
“I was 13 years old when this happened. Today, as the Fire Marshal of Plymouth Township, I work with the men and women in emergency management to avoid tragedies like the Plymouth Meeting Mall Fire. When you study the major fires that have taken so many lives and caused so much destruction in our country, one of the things that most of these fires have in common is the lack of a properly designed, installed, and maintained fire sprinkler system. While a sprinkler system will not prevent the ignition of combustible materials, it will control the fire – allowing the occupants sufficient time to exit the building and allow firefighters the time to arrive and complete extinguishment. We have had several success stories where people and significant property have been saved by fire sprinklers here in Plymouth Township.”
Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania
“In January of 1970, I had just turned 9 years old. I recall being at my uncle’s home on North Lane. My mom’s brother told me that my Uncle Jack (Jack Phipps, future Fire Chief of the Harmonville Fire Company) was fighting the fire at the Plymouth Meeting Mall. We drove over to Plymouth Road and Germantown Pike – just outside of the Mall. We sat there for awhile and watched the fire.”
Retired Fire Chief
Conshohocken Fire Department
In Part Four, we’ll meet some of the fire fighters who made a stand that day. Men who risked their lives to protect people and property in harm’s way.
The photo is courtesy of Barren Hill Fire Company.
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© 2018 Richard McDonough