March 25, 1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire


WHAT HAPPENED?


On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire, killing 123 women and girls and 23 men. It was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of Manhattan, and one of the deadliest in the nation.


Though many of the deaths occurred from the fire itself, many died of smoke inhalation, or even jumping or falling to their deaths in attempt to get out of the building. The majority of the victims were Italian or Jewish immigrant women and girls, between the ages of 12 and 23. The oldest victim was a 43 year old woman, and the youngest were 2 14-year-old girls.


Common practice at the time was to lock the stairwells and exits to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks, but it also lead to the inability for people to escape once the fire broke out, leading people to jump from the high windows.


Safety standards were updated and adjusted after the fire, and the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) was improved upon, fighting for better working conditions in sweatshops. The building is designated as a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark.

THE FIRE


The building, the 10-story Asch Building on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, rented out space to various different companies. The Triangle Waist Company occupied the 8th, 9th and 10th floors.


The factory manufactured women's blouses, known as "shirtwaists" (which does not sound like a real word, but sure.) With 500 workers, the company employed mostly young immigrant women and girls. They were to work 9 hours a day during the week, and 7 hours on Saturday. Their 52 hours of work earned them a sweet $7-$12 per week. (In today's currency, that would be between $3.67 to $6.29 per hour.)


At 4:40 PM on Saturday, March 25, almost closing time, a scrap bin under one of the tables on the 8th floor flared up. A fire alarm went off at 4:45, and smoke was seen coming from the 8th floor by a passerby.


The Fire Marshall's official ruling was that the fire was likely started by an unextinguished match or cigarette being put in the bin, as it had months worth of scraps in it. Beneath each table were hundreds of pounds of scraps. Though smoking was not allowed in the factory, it was common knowledge that some workers would sneak cigarettes.


Another possibility is that the fire may have been started by engines running the sewing machines. Additionally, some believe it could have been arson, a pattern in the fashion industry when the clothing being produced was no longer popular - because shirtwaists were no longer as fashionable as they once were, the fire may have been set for insurance money. However, though the owners had previous suspicious fires in their companies, arson was never officially suspected.


As the fire began to blaze through the 8th floor, a bookkeeper was able to telephone the 10th floor to let them know they needed to evacuate, but there was no way to contact the 9th floor. Survivor Yetta Libitz said the first warning that a fire was coming on the 9th floor was when they actually saw the fire the first time.


The floor had multiple exits, including freight elevators, a fire escape and stairwells, the flames prevented workers from accessing the some stairwells, and others were blocked to prevent theft. The one person who held the key to the stairwell had already escaped via another route. Some were able to evacuate by jamming themselves in the elevators while they were still functional, while others were able to access stairs to the roof.


But within minutes, the Green Street stairway, the one employees had used to access the roof, was unusable to go up or down. Employees crowded onto the single outside fire escape - a compromised addition to the building instead of adding a 3rd stairwell. But the fire escape was poorly anchored to the side, and it collapsed from the heat and the human overload. Nearly 20 victims fell 100 feet to their deaths on the concrete below.


Without access to stairs, elevators or a fire escape, workers were left to wait until the smoke and fire overcame them, or jump.


Though the fire department arrived quickly, their ladders were not able to reach beyond the 7th floor and thus, they were not able to stop the flames. They were also not able to approach the building as they needed to became of the heaps of dead bodies on the ground.


Two elevator operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillaro saved many lives, going up and back 3 times to the 9th floor to retrieve workers, but they had to stop as the elevator began to buckle under the heat. Terrified victims tried to pry the elevator doors open to jump into the empty shaft with hopes to slide down the cables, but this warped the elevator car, making it impossible to use the elevators.


A crowd had formed, with reporters coming to cover the chaos. They witnessed 62 people jump, or fall, to their deaths from the building. A witness saw a man kiss a young woman in the window before they both jumped to their deaths. A reporter named William Gunn Shepard said, "I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture - the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk."

AFTERMATH


146 people died that day. 123 women and girls, and 23 men. Most died of burns, asphyxiation, blunt impact injuries, or a horrific combination of all 3.


Bodies were taken to Charities Pier for identification by friends and relatives. They were buried in 16 different cemeteries. 6 victims were unidentified until a historian named Michael Hirsch was able to identify all 6 of them. They were buried together in Brooklyn.


The owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who both survived the fire by escaping right when it began, were indicted on charges of first and second degree manslaughter. Their trial began on December 4, 1911.


The defense "destroyed the credibility of" a survivor, Kate Alterman, by asking her the same question over and over, her answers not changing in the slightest. The defense counsel, Max Steuer, claimed that survivors and witnesses had memorized their statements and were told what to say.


The prosecution claimed that the owners would have known the doors were locked, but the defense claimed they had no way to prove it.


Ultimately, they were acquitted of first/second degree manslaughter, but were found liable of wrongful death during a 1913 civil suit. The plaintiffs were given $75 per deceased victim. Also in 1913, Banck was arrested again for locking the door in his factory during working hours. He was hit with a detrimental $20 fine (around $500 now.)


Rose Schneiderman, a socialist and union activist at the time, gave a speech at the memorial meeting, using the fire as a push to organize factory workers. Others with similar interests, including the ILGWU, believed in political reform. A committee on public safety was headed by a witness, Frances Perkins, who would go on to be appointed as US Secretary of Labor.


In the next few years, fairer work hours were fought for, the Factory Investigating Commission was created to investigate factory conditions, and helped to modernize New York state's labor laws, including better building access, fireproofing requirements, fire extinguisher requirements, alarm systems, automatic sprinklers, better eating and bathroom facilities, and a limit of hours for women and children. Between 1911 and 1913, 60 of the 64 new laws recommended were legislated.


The last living survivor was Rose Freedman who died at the age of 107 in her Beverly Hills home in 2001. She was almost 18 at the time of the fire, and followed the company's owners out and was rescued from the roof of the building. She was a lifelong supporter of unions because of her experience.


In 2008, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition was created and joined by 200+ organizations and individuals to commemorate the fire on its 100th anniversary. From the summer of 2009 until the week leading up to the anniversary, the Coalition organized over 200 activities like academic conferences, films, performances, art shows, concerts, readings, campaigns, parades and walking tours. These took place in NYC, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston and Washington D.C.


The Coalition also worked to create a permanent art memorial at the site of the fire. A national design competition was announced in 2012, and in 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced $1.5 million would be set aside for the memorial.


The 100th anniversary of the fire was widely commemorated throughout the U.S., but it should be something that we remind ourselves about often. In 1911, children were working over 50 hours a week in sweatshops. Owners were locking the only way out of the building to prevent them from taking breaks. And as a result, 146 people lost their lives 109 years ago today.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire

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