Going to work is never easy. Many surveys claim that over 70% of Americans do not like what they do for a living. But, imagine living 100 years ago where choices were limited. One needed to work if they wanted to eat. There were no other choices. Many arrived from Europe for a better life and off to the factories you went to work. Many in New York City worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
On March 25, 1911, a laborer heard a muffled explosion and the sound of shattering glass. He looked up to see what he believed were sacks of cloth being thrown from the windows of the Asch Building. What the laborer did not know was he would be witness to one of the worst industrial accidents in the country and the worst recorded for New York City. The Triangle Factory Fire took the lives of 146. Most were Italian and Jewish immigrant girls looking for a better way of life in the United States.
Before The Fire- The Protest
In 1909, working condition were horrible, so the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) spilled over into the streets in the Uprising of the 20,000. The women protested the working conditions: wages, working hours, child labor, workplace safety and unwanted sexual advances. The mostly 20,000 garment workers consisted of young immigrant women who partook in an 11-week strike in New York’s shirtwaist industry.
As the garment district moved from tenant homes into larger buildings, the shirtwaist, which is a blouse, arrived onto the fashion scene. The strike formed against the Rosen Brothers, Leiserson Company and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. After five weeks, the Rosen Brothers settled with their employees but Leiserson and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company would not relent because they wanted a union free workplace.
The Day New York Wept
The Triangle Waist Company Factory occupied the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the ASCH Building, East of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. The owners Max Blanch and Isaac Harris employed close to 500 workers.
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, about 15 minutes before 5 pm, the girls of the factory began to prepare to close down shop for the day. Most had already worked a 56 hours week and longed to get out of the cramped quarters in which they spent most of their day for low wages.
A worker on the eight floor frantically called and warned employees on the tenth floor about the breakout of a fire. There were no audible or visual alarms in the building and no way to contact the ninth floor. The employees of the tenth floor began to make their way to the roof where college students from NYU began to help them escape by crossing over to the roof the university building. The workers on the ninth floor weren’t so lucky because there was no way to warn them. By the time the workers found out about the fire, it was upon them.
Young Girls Trapped in an Inferno
While there were a few exits on the ninth floor, including two freight elevators, a fire escape and a stairwell down to Greene Street, but the flames prevented the girls from escaping in that direction. The doors to the Washington Place stairwell were locked to prevent stealing, work breaks and so managers could rummage through the girl’s purses unchecked. The foreman who had the key to the Washington Place door had already escaped through a different route. The workers on the ninth floor were trapped. The Triangle Factory Fire raged. Panic ensued as the young women desperately tried to escape.
Elevator operators Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo refused to abandon their co-workers and kept the freight elevators running until the heat from the fire became so intense, they could not attempt additional trips. They overloaded the elevator with workers with the promise to the other young girls waiting that they would be back. Therefore, many girls survived this otherwise dismal and horrific situation. Kudos to these men who did not give up hope until the elevator actually began to melt!
Terrified employees raced to the fire escape, and as a result of too much weight, the fire escape collapsed. Some held on tightly—screaming! Young girls fell to their death on the concrete below. It appears as if the fire escape was broken prior to fire, so there was no hope for them. The city allowed the owners to install it instead of the required additional third staircase. Shame on NYC for allowing this.
Nowhere To Run
With nowhere to go, the girls made their way to the windows and stood out on the ledges of the building. The crowd interacted with them. The onlookers screamed out in terror. The girls were so young. The fire department reached the scene in minutes, but their ladders only reached the sixth floor. As the smoke spread across the New York skyline, so did the curiosity of its residents. Crowds began to make their way over to the building to inspect the smoke.
Eyewitness to Terror
With no options left, the girls began to jump from the windows of the building because the flames engulfed the building. Some were already on fire as they stepped out of the windows from the eighth floor.
William G Shepherd, a reporter called in what he saw at the scene to his employer, “I learned a new sound–a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.
Thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead. Sixty-two thud-deads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet.
The first ten thud-deads shocked me. I looked up-saw that there were scores of girls at the windows. The flames from the floor below were beating in their faces. Somehow, I knew that they, too, must come down, and something within me-something that I didn’t know was there-steeled me.
I even watched one girl falling. Waving her arms, trying to keep her body upright until the very instant she struck the sidewalk, she was trying to balance herself. Then came the thud–then a silent, unmoving pile of clothing and twisted, broken limbs.”
Goodbye! It’s Hard to Die
One young girl waved goodbye to the crowd before jumping; while others in group of two and three held hands before stepping off of the ledge of the building. One woman yelled in Italian “goodbye.” The firemen begged the girls not to jump to no avail. Many of them were already on fire prior to jumping from the building. The Triangle Factory Fire consumed the young lives.
The bodies began to pile up on the sidewalks and men coming off from work on wall Street stood under the building with open arms trying to catch the falling young women.
Falling bodies impaled on the fence to the side of the building.
The fire department battled the fire, although the hose would intermittently lose water pressure. The floods of water ran red with the blood from the girls who had jumped.
Dead, smashed, battered bodies littered the street. People looked on in horror; other cried; others scream out in an empathetic agony.
The Guilt of The Masses
In the end, 146 people, mostly young girls, some as young as 14, perished in the Triangle Factory Fire. Seven of the bodies recovered so badly burned that no one was able to make claim to them.
A mass funeral was held for the unclaimed bodies of The Triangle Factory Fire. Sorrow and despair overtook the people of New York City. 120,000 people marched in the funeral as over 400,000 people watched silently as the rain in New York fell mixing with their tears.
Possibly, The Triangle Factory Fire started in one of the many scrap cloth bins from a cigarette. Others speculated differently. A New York Times article suggested that the fire many have been started by the engines running the sewing machine. A series of articles in Collier’s noted a pattern of arson among certain sectors of the garment industry when their particular fashion fell out of style. Although Blanck and Harris were known for having had four previous suspicious fires at their companies, arson was not suspected in the Triangle Factory Fire case.
They were brought up on manslaughter charges but acquitted. many in the city felt rage. One year later Blanck was caught having an exit door to his factory blocked by sewing machines. He was fined.
The sorrow of the New York people, who witnessed the Triangle Factory Fire turned to anger and they demanded new rules to prevent a tragedy such as this again. The New York Legislature eventually passed over 30 new laws. They set a better wage and acceptable working hours. They also strengthened child labor laws.
Businesses protested but New York changed. The change for safety and better working conditions eventually spread across the country. But, many conditions did not change. And, the Great Depression loomed in the background.
Just one more note in Dark History.
Diner, Hasia R. “Lecture:The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the Shared Italian-Jewish History of NewYork”[Italian-American Magazine (March 16, 2011)
Von Drehle, David. “List of Victims”. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. Retrieved November 28, 2012.