The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

It was Saturday, March 25, 1911 and Isadore Abramowitz was anxious to get home from a long day of cutting fabric at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where he earned his living working 12-hour days, six days a week. As he turned to grab his coat, a cigarette butt was carelessly thrown into the pile of scrap material under his workstation.1By the time it was finally extinguished, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire would claim the lives of 146 innocent people and ultimately inspire a movement for labor reform in New York City and across the United States.

Fed by the flammable wooden tables and yards of fabric, the fire erupted into a full-blown inferno in seconds. It went on to demolish the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch building, situated at the corners of Washington Place and Greene Street. In thirty minutes, thousands of onlookers watched as 146 people met their deaths, either at the hands of the fire or when they were forced to jump to the pavement below.2

The fire spread beyond Abramowitz’s scrap pile rapidly. Factory manager Samuel Bernstein was on the eighth floor when the flames broke out. He began several failed attempts to extinguish the blaze. Bernstein’s cousin, Dinah Lipschitz, called the tenth floor operator, Mary Alter, who in a panic went to notify the factory owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, but forgot to call down to the ninth floor. The 120 workers, one floor below, were unaware that a fire had begun its path towards them.3
On the eighth floor, women began to frantically move towards the exits, where they met their first roadblock. The Asch building had two exit stairways one leading to Greene Street and the other to Washington Place, the latter of which was never used and often kept locked to prevent stealing, in violation of safety codes. On an average work day women were funneled out the Greene Street exit so security could check their handbags for stolen merchandise; the exit was so small only one person could pass at a time.4 The exit wasn't large enough to evacuate all of the employees quickly, causing panic throughout the factory. Conditions on the other side of the factory were worse because the Washington Place exit door was locked. As the fire grew, workers climbed onto the balconies where they would hover over the cement ground below.

At 4:45 p.m. Mary Alter told the bookkeeper to call the fire department, which arrived on scene within minutes. Despite firefighters' quick response, they were powerless to help.5 Their fire ladders, even the newest models, fell short at the sixth floor and the newly pressurized hosing was ineffective from the street. Within five minutes the fire ate 9,000 square feet of the eighth floor and moved onto the ninth. At 4:50 p.m., the first man stepped off the ledge beginning a mass suicide of workers trying to escape the fire.6
By the eleventh minute of the fire, workers on the ninth floor were trapped. Operators of the building’s two elevator passenger cars tried desperately to save as many as they could from the ninth floor, but could only make three trips. By 4:51 p.m. it became too dangerous for them to return. Escape down the stairways had also become impossible.7 While the door to the Washington Place exit was eventually unlocked on the eighth floor, it remained locked on the ninth and many women died trying to pry the doors open.

Bodies had already begun to fall from the ledges when women decided to brave the small fire escape. Within minutes, panicked workers rushed onto the poorly-crafted iron and it began to buckle under the significant weight. As it began to sway under the strain, the iron bar that kept the shutters opened at the eighth floor window got stuck in place, slipping through the slates of the stairway. This trapped the women attempting to descend from above, but it did not stop the exit flow of escapees. Soon the ladder reached its weight capacity and fell to the ground below, killing everyone who had been on it at the time.8
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Workers on the tenth floor had a better chance for survival than the ninth. Immediately after word came through about the fire, workers rushed the Greene Street stairway and climbed up to the roof, where NYU law students used ladders to get them to safety.

The fire was over within a half-hour, but it left the street littered with bodies, mostly female. A crowd of thousands stood watching in horror, including newspaper reporter William Gunn Shepherd who spent the duration of the fire on the phone to his office giving a full account of the events.9

Coffins containing the fire's victims were moved to Charities Pier on 26th Street on the Hudson River, on the night of March 25th. The pier was also known as Misery Lane because it was often used as makeshift morgue when a tragedy yielded too large a death toll for bodies to be kept in the city morgue. The doors opened at midnight for friends and family to identify the victims, and remained open for four days.10
The women who lay in the streets were the mothers, sisters, aunts, friends and wives of Manhattan’s Lower East Side immigrant community, mostly Italians and Jews, and in many cases were the only providers for their families. Relief efforts immediately began to aid grieving families, but it did not quell the questions that society began to ask, the most important being who was to blame for the deaths of 146 innocent people?

In the aftermath of the fire, public outcry demanded someone be held responsible. The Asch building did not have a third stairway, even though building code required it to, its fire escape was weak and unsafe, and doors to some exits were locked while others were blocked by the stampede of bodies trying to rush outside. For weeks blame was shuffled around to various organizations, until Harris and Blank were indicted on two counts of manslaughter. Their trial would begin in December of 1911, but by the end of the month the factory owners were acquitted because of lack of evidence. However, Joseph Asch, the Asch building's owner, later lost civil suits brought against him by the families of the Triangle victims.

The fire would play a very important role in 20th century labor reform, further galvanizing workers to fight for safer conditions and fair treatment. Its impact was part of a series of events, which started with the Uprising of the 20,000; a strike of garment workers, which was started by workers at the Triangle Factory in 1910. It ended before major improvements could be made in the labor industry, but it was the first time workers made a stand for their rights. Many of the women who died in the fire, were part of the Uprising.

The Triangle fire also had a larger societal impact after March 25, 1911. Thousands witnessed the mass suicide, which caused a collective demand for labor reform, ushering in "the Golden Age in factory reform".11In October of 1911, the New York City Board of Aldermen adopted the Sullivan-Hoey Act, establishing the Bureau of Fire Prevention. The New York State Legislature also created the Factory Investigating Commission, which held its first meeting on October 14, 1911. Between October 1911 and December of 1912, the FIC conducted investigations into factory safety, to create new legislation that would enforce the use of fire safety measures, like fire escapes and alarms. The fire continued to impact legislation well into the New Deal era and has been permanently integrated into American labor history narrative. As the centennial approaches in March of 2011, the Triangle fire's legacy remains as a reminder that the battle for worker's rights is never over.

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