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March 25th – Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Tragedy occurs in New York City

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911.

On this day in 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, one of the worst industrial accidents in American history. The factory was located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighbourhood, and the building is currently designated a National Historic Landmark (click here to see where the building is located). In total, 146 lives were lost in the tragedy, either from the fire itself, smoke inhalation, or falling/jumping to their deaths. The vast majority of the victims were female Jewish or Italian immigrants, aged as young as 14 years of age. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire opened Americans’ eyes to the unsafe conditions of many of the country’s workplaces, leading to improved factory safety regulations and better conditions for factory workers.

Hundreds of shirtwaist (a blouse that resembled a man’s shirt) factories existed in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the largest of the factories, employing over 500 people, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants to America. Work conditions at the factory were extreme, despite the immense profits that factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris brought in. Women (and children) worked 9 hours a day on weekdays and 7 hours on Saturdays, making only $7-12 a week. Workers at the Triangle Factory had few breaks at work, were followed to the bathroom and were rushed back to work, and worked in overcrowded environments. Important to this story, few safety regulations existed in the factory: cotton textile scraps (flammable of course) littered the factory floor, no sprinkler system was installed, and the fire escape ladder was shoddy and only reached down to the second floor. As well, the factory owners Blanck and Harris were afraid that their workers would steal equipment or merchandise from the factory floor. Consequently, Blanck and Harris mandated that one of the two doors to the factory be locked while the factory was running, so that the workers would have to take a specific exit while the factory was closing to be searched for stolen products. This single exit was partitioned to allow only one worker at a time to leavefor inspection. Even at this time, Blanck and Harris’ policy of locking a door was against fire regulations in New York City.

At 4:40 pm on Saturday March 25th, 1911, right before the factory was closing for the day, a fire started on the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. While the official cause of the fire has never been determined, fire officials at the time believed a lit cigarette ignited a trash bin full of cotton scraps next to a worker’s station. As alluded to earlier, cotton is quite flammable, and soon enough, the entire cotton-covered floor was up in flames, spreading up to the floors above. Efforts were made to try to extinguish the fire on the floor using a fire hose in the factory, however the hose had not been properly inspected and proved completely useless as little water pressure existed. The only course of action left for the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was to escape.

Tragically the options were limited for the workers trying to get out. As one of the two doors was locked, workers scrambled towards the other spatially-limiting door, often trampling and pushing others aside to get to the exit quickly. Other workers sought exodus through the passenger elevators, which ran up and down the building, trying to get as many workers out from the factory as possible. Some of the workers on the tenth floor were able to get to the roof of the building, where law students at nearby NYU (New York University) threw ladders over from adjacent buildings to get people out. Some workers took the fire escape ladder, which was so flimsy that, when people went to climb down the ladder, the ladder simply fell off the building, sending workers plummeting to their deaths. More drastic, and often ill-fated, attempts were made to leave the factory. Some workers tried to slide down elevator cables, ending up losing their grip and fatally falling. Sadly, many would jump out of the windows in a last-ditch attempt to escape the fire. Despite the arrival of the New York Fire Department, their ladders could only reach the 6th floor, and their fire nets proved too weak to catch the fall of workers. By this time, many onlookers had come and stood outside of the Asch Building, looking on in horror at the tragedy that lay in front of them. William Gunn Shepard, an eyewitness at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire commented on those jumping out from the windows: “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.”

The bodies from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire were recovered and taken to Charities Pier (also known as Misery Lane), for identification by friends and loved ones. The official death toll was 146, 123 women and 23 men. The victims were interned in sixteen different cemeteries. Interestingly, six victims of the fire remaining unidentified until 2011, 100 years after the fire occurred. While these six victims were originally buried together in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, a grave marker has now been placed with the identities of the victims.

Following the tragedy, Blanck and Harris were tried for manslaughter for their responsibility in the deaths resulting from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The trial lasted for three weeks, and ultimately Blanck and Harris were acquitted. The two factory owners were acquitted after the prosecution failed to definitely conclude that the door was locked and that the owners knew this, but also, that fewer people would have died had the doors been unlocked. On a positive note however, a commission was put in place after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire to look into the conditions of factories throughout New York City. The findings of the commission concluded that many factories lacked many basic safety considerations, such as sprinklers, fire walls, fire doors. In the years after the tragedy, legislation was passed at the state and federal levels to strengthen workplace safety laws and regulations, improving the labour environment of workers throughout the country.

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