The Freedom Valley Chronicles: Plymouth Meeting Mall Fire – Part Four

Jack Fessler was a captain with Harmonville Fire Company in 1970.  When the call was made at 10:23 AM on January 10th, he was among the first firefighters to respond to a report of a fire at the Plymouth Meeting Mall.

Within a short time, Mr. Fessler and others with Harmonville Fire Company were fighting the fire along with firefighters from Plymouth Fire Company, Barren Hill Fire Company, and other area fire companies.

He almost didn’t make it out.

“I went into the Mall with a crew of a couple guys,” explained Mr. Fessler.  “We brought in a hose line and were manning that line as we fought the fire.  At some point, I heard a noise.  A strange noise.  A noise that I had not heard before.”

“I told the guys that we needed to get out of there,” continued Mr. Fessler.  “We rushed out of the Mall.  Just as I took off my breathing apparatus, I heard a very loud noise.”

The noise was that of portions of the roof falling to the floor of the Mall.

Right where Mr. Fessler and his men had been standing.  Fighting the fire.

If not for his good hearing, the fire fight that day at the Plymouth Meeting Mall would have ended in a much more tragic manner.

Mr. Fessler has continued his public service through the years, including serving as the Plymouth Township Fire Marshal for 26 years from October 15, 1979, to June 1, 2005.  Today, he still works part-time for Plymouth Township in the area of code enforcement.

These are four of the firefighters who fought the Plymouth Meeting Mall Fire.  They are standing in the middle of the Mall near where the roof fell onto the fountain in front of the Lit Brothers Department Store.  From left to right, the firefighters were Mr. Jeff Bauhaus of Barren Hill Fire Company, an unidentified firefighter, Mr. John (Jack) Phipps of Harmonville Fire Company, and Mr. Russell McKee of Barren Hill Fire Company.  Mr. Phipps later served as Fire Chief of Harmonville Fire Company.

Barren Hill Fire Company responded quickly to the call for help from their neighbors in Plymouth Township.

Jeff Bauhaus drove a fire truck for that Whitemarsh Township fire company.  Three other firefighters were with him that day as he drove down Germantown Pike to get to the Plymouth Meeting Mall.

“When we arrived, there was no visible smoke outside the building,” explained Mr. Bauhaus.  “Our three guys went into the Mall and came out a few minutes later soaking wet.  When I asked what happened, they explained that they had fallen in the large fountain at the Mall.  The smoke was so dense that they did not even see the fountain.”

Mr. Bauhaus spent 2 days pumping water to help fight the fire and put out hot spots as the fire was put under control.

At 84 years of age, Mr. Bauhaus has been a member of Barren Hill Fire Company for 60 years.  He served in the United States military in Libya and worked in the airline industry.

Smoke is seen coming out of one of the entrances to the Plymouth Meeting Mall.

The exact number of firefighters that fought the Plymouth Meeting Mall Fire is not certain.  Several news reports put the number at 200 firefighters.  According to Fire Journal, issued by the National Fire Protection Association, 350 men fought the fire, helped with relief efforts, and helped with clean-up activities.

Norristown was one of several area municipalities that responded to help Plymouth Township in 1970.  This photo shows one of the fire trucks from the Norristown Fire Department helping fight the Plymouth Meeting Mall Fire.

In addition to the two fire companies serving Plymouth Township and Barren Hill Fire Company, Centre Square Fire Company of Whitpain Township, the Norristown Fire Department, Norriton Fire Company of East Norriton, and Spring Mill Fire Company of Whitemarsh Township, and other area fire companies responded to fight the Plymouth Meeting Mall Fire.

Firefighters had to deal with the cold weather as well as the ice and snow on the ground.

Both Harmonville Fire Company and the Plymouth Township Board of Commissioners each sent thank you letters to the area fire companies that helped the Township in its time of need.

A copy of the letter from Harmonville Fire Company is displayed in this news article.

A copy of the letter sent by Plymouth Township has not been located, but some of the wording of the letter (dated February 23, 1970) was recorded in the records of Barren Hill Fire Company:  “The Commissioners of Plymouth Township express their deep gratitude and appreciation for the service rendered…” at the fire at the Plymouth Meeting Mall.

This is a copy of the letter sent from Harmonville Fire Company to Barren Hill Fire Company. 

Mr. Fessler and Mr. Bauhaus both recall that many people stood in the parking lots watching the fire on that cold winter day.  “It was amazing seeing all these people taking photos as we fought the fire,” explained Mr. Bauhaus.

In Part Five, we’ll show a number of photos taken while the fire raged at the Plymouth Meeting Mall.  Part Six will show photos of the utter destruction within the Mall.

The photos and letter are provided as a courtesy by Barren Hill Fire Company.

Do you have questions about local history?  A street name?  A building?

Your questions may be used in a future news article.

Contact Richard McDonough at

© 2018 Richard McDonough