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

When disasters occur, facts sometimes get lost in the circumstances.  Witnesses leave the scene.  People involved sometimes diminish or embellish their involvement.  Evidence disappears.

After the fire that destroyed about one-third of the Plymouth Meeting Mall on January 10, 1970, there was an investigation to determine its cause.  According to a news article in The Gettysburg Times on January 19, 1970, the investigation stated that the fire “’was electrical in origin,’ according to a report released Sunday [January 18, 1970]  by the Plymouth Township fire marshal’s office.”

The National Fire Protection Association printed a detailed news article about the fire and the results of the investigation.  You can read the news article in the September 1970 issue of Fire Journal, a publication of the National Fire Protection Association, by clicking here.

A few quotes from the Fire Journal news article:

“The fire originated in a clothing store on the lower level of the mall area…Shortly before 10 am one of the owners of that store arrived at the shopping center and parked his car adjacent to the lower-level entrance closest to his store.  He went though the mall area to his store, where he unlocked and opened the sliding glass doors and took a carriage from the rear of the store.  While in the store, he turned on some lights, including those that illuminated the showcases.  He then returned to his car with the carriage to get some materials, locking the doors behind him.  Returning to the store, he again unlocked the door and noticed a small fire in the nine-foot-high, four-foot-wide, 20-foot-long showcase located to the right of the door.  From that time (about 10 am) until the Fire Department was notified of the fire at 10:23 am, little is known of the activities of the store owner or of any other mall personnel.”

Some of those activities can now be reported.

The way the fire started is not correct according to Mr. Bernie Capodici.  At the time, he was the sales manager at King’s Men’s Shop at the Plymouth Meeting Mall.  He was 20 years old.

Today, Mr. Capodici works in marketing and logistics for a lighting design firm in Doylestown.  He is also the leader of a band, “Drivetime”, which performs a mix of Jazz, Latin, and Funk music.

Mr. Capodici was working the morning of January 10, 1970, with one of the owners of the store.  Mr. Capodici explained that it started out as just another regular day at work.  He had recently transferred from the King’s Men’s Shop in Upper Darby to the store in Plymouth Meeting.  He stated that he and the owner entered the store about 10 am.  Mr. Capodici explained that he was the one who went to the rear of the store to turn on the lights in the store.

“When I turned on the lights, there was a loud ‘pop’,” stated Mr. Capodici.  “[The owner] started screaming.  There was a fire in one of the display windows.  He yelled for me to grab the cash box and get out of the store.”

(The “cash box “ was the money that they had brought in that morning to put in the cash register so change could be provided as customers made purchases during the day.)

“I got the cash box and ran out of the store,” stated Mr. Capodici.  “[The owner] and I stood in the Mall and watched as the fire spread within the display case.”

Mr. Capodici explained that the “pop” he heard was that of one of the light bulbs in one of the display windows exploding.  Mr. Capodici indicated that it was that “pop” that started the fire.

Mr. Capodici stated that no one ever spoke to him or asked him questions about what happened that morning.

A copy of the actual investigative report has not been located.  Contemporary news reports indicate that investigators interviewed the owners of the stores affected by the fire.  None of those contemporary news reports seen thus far indicate that employees, shoppers, or other witnesses were interviewed.

“I don’t know why, but no one ever asked me what happened in the store that morning,” stated Mr. Capodici.

Mr. Capodici does not question the conclusion of the investigative report that the fire “was electrical in origin”.  He doesn’t question that “heavy char was found around some severely heated wires” in the platform within the display case, as reported in the news article by Fire Journal.

Mr. Capodici does say that the fire started right after he turned on the lights and the light bulb exploded in the display case.

“The display cases were filled with Christmas decorations from the recent holiday,” explained Mr. Capodici.  “We had beautiful displays of men’s clothing and accessories.  The displays of men’s shirts, for example, were stuffed with tissue paper and newspapers so there would be no wrinkles in the shirts.  Cufflinks were displayed on antique wood furniture.”

From that initial “pop”, the fire devoured the contacts of the first display case, Mr. Capodici explained.

“At some point, the window of that display case shattered and the fire spread to the back of the store and the ceiling,” Mr. Capodici stated.  “The fire then entered the second display window in the front of the store.  The store was then fully engulfed in fire.”

The owner of the store attempted to fight the fire, according to Mr. Capodici.

“[The owner] went to the [fire station] right near our store,” Mr. Capodici explained.  “I watched as he took the hose out of the glass enclosure.  He turned the controls to open the waterline to the hose and the nozzle of the hose itself.”

“But nothing happened.  No water came out of the hose.”

“He dropped the hose in disgust.”

According to Mr. Capodici, they both stood and watched as the fire spread.  He said others in the Mall did the same.  “It was surreal.”

Mr. Capodici was able to confirm that he saw employees of Docktor Pet Center taking puppies out of the pet store that was located across from the men’s store.  “I don’t know why, but they turned left out of their store to get the dogs out of the Mall rather then turning right to the closest exit,” stated Mr. Capodici.  News reports at the time indicate that 40 puppies were saved that day.  The other animals in the store – cats, birds, and fish – died in the fire.

Regardless of whether the owner or Mr. Capodici flipped the switch to turn lights on that morning – an activity that most of us do every morning in our homes and in our businesses – the resulting fire devastated a community.

Regardless of whether an exploding light bulb or faulty wiring was the specific spark that caused the fire, all indications remain that the fire “’was electrical in origin”.

In future news articles, we’ll detail steps you can take in your own home, in your place of work, and in places you visit to minimize the risks of fire.

Please note:  This news article is not using the name of the owner of the store because we have not seen the investigative report and cannot locate him (if he is still with us).  As such, we are unable to review his actual statements or ask him questions.

The photo is provided as a courtesy by Plymouth Township.

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

Your questions may be used in a future news article.

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© 2018 Richard McDonough