Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
The History Cat Classroom
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
At 4:45 p.m. on the afternoon of March 25, 1911 the five hundred or so workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were getting ready to end their shift. One of the seamstresses on the eighth floor noticed smoke coming from a bin of scrap cloth, probably ignited by a spark or cigarette ash. Nobody will ever know how the fire started, but we know how it came to a tragic end. The seamstress called for the floor supervisor. Bin fires were common and could usually be put out using one of the fire pails located on each floor. Not this time. The fire was soon raging out of control, fueled by scraps of cloth and sewing machine oil that turned the women’s garment factory into a death trap. When it became clear that the fire couldn’t be contained the manager ordered the building evacuated. The telephone operator rang the ninth and tenth floors to warn them. For some unknown reason, the operator on the ninth floor never answered. This is where the real disaster begins.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was your typical sweatshop that occupied the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building in New York City. The Company mostly hired recent immigrants from Europe, mostly women, to sew shirt waists– the latest article in women’s fashion in the early 1900s. The hundreds of seamstresses and cutters worked 10-14 hours a day, six days a week in sweat shop conditions. Their workplace was sadly typical.
A crowd of ten thousand quickly gathered at the corner of Washington and Greene Streets to watch the horror unfold. The workers on the eighth and tenth floor, including Blanck and Harris had managed to escape either using the elevator or by climbing to the rooftop where they were helped to safety by law students studying next door at New York University. These lucky souls managed to cross over to safety using a painter’s ladder as a bridge.
By the time the 260 workers on the ninth floor learned of the fire it was too late. The elevators were too full with passengers on the tenth and eighth floors to stop. One of the doors leading to the stairwells was locked. The only escape route was jammed with 150 screaming women trying to reach safety through the narrow passage. Only four would make it out alive.
The fire was now raging out of control. The fire department had reached the scene in minutes but with ladders that only reached the sixth story, could do nothing to fight the blaze. As the smoke became too thick to see and the heat became unbearable some women chose to jump to their deaths from the windows rather than burn to death. On lookers could only watch as girls became flinging themselves out of the windows landing with a sickening thud on the pavement 100 feet below. Some tried to escape down the elevator cable. At one point the number of people jumping onto the roof of the elevator caused the entire car to collapse. Rescue workers found dozens of bodies at the bottom of the shaft.
By 7 p.m. that evening, 20,000 people had gathered outside the Asch Building to learn the fate of their loved ones who were working at the Triangle. 146 bodies were recovered from the wreckage and the streets. So many that a temporary morgue had to be set up on the nearby pier. The public reaction was swift. New Yorkers wanted to know who was responsible for this tragedy. A relief fund was set up for the victim’s families. A trial was held for the two men seen as most guilty: Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. Strangely the Triangle owners were charged with a single crime. Manslaughter for the death of a single employee: Margaret Schwartz who had discovered the locked door on the ninth floor. The prosecution painted a picture of two sweat shop owners whose greed led them to disregard safety rules by locking the door in violation of the law. The defense hired big city lawyer Max D. Struer who managed to make it look like the prosecution’s witnesses had been coached and were liars. Blanck and Harris were found not guilty. The mob outside the courthouse was so angry that police had to escort the two defendants out.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (and the not guilty verdict) sparked a reform movement that may never had occurred had it not been for this tragedy. The trade unions rallied more people to their cause to demand better conditions and safety procedures for factory workers. New York City enacted new laws that created commission to investigate fire safety violations. Smoking bans were enforced in garment factories and old wires had to be replaced to prevent fires. Fire sprinklers were made mandatory in every building over seven stories. 3,500 New York businesses were investigated and found that dirty, unsafe sweat shop conditions were rampant. This fact opened the eyes of Americans and gave power to the labor unions who had been fighting an uphill battle to ensure better conditions for the millions of workers who toiled in sweat shops like the Triangle.
The owners of Triangle, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris had grown wealthy in the shirtwaist business. Blanck and Harris had been fighting the garment unions for over a decade to prevent higher wages, and safer conditions from cutting into their bottom line. The city of New York looked the other way at violations in the fire code. Of course, New York City hardly had much of a fire code to begin with in those days. The recent immigration boom had brought a million new immigrants to the cities each year between 1870 and 1920. All of these people ended up in cities like New York which had begun building the world’s first skyscrapers to meet the demand for living space. Of course, the laws hadn’t caught up with the times. All the fire codes said at that time was that the doors had to open in, remain unlocked during business hours, and have at least three stairwells for a space the size of the Asch Building. On three accounts the building failed to meet code.
The doors opened inward which caused a massive jam of bodies at the door as hundreds of workers on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors surged forward to escape the rising flames. The doors had been designed this way so that workers would be forced to be checked at the end of their shift to make sure their bags could be checked for theft. The two stairways were wide enough for only one person. A space saving design. The third staircase was the rickety fires escape which had never been inspected and ended at the second floor. The fire escape was dangerous on its own. Many people slipped and fell to their deaths but when dozens of people climbed out the window onto the fire escape of the ninth floor the platform collapsed under their weight sending bodies crashing to the pavement. Only 20 people found their way to safety this way.