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Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
Asch-brown-triangle-shirtwaist-fire-building.JPG
The building today
Date March 25, 1911
Time 4:40 PM (local time)
Location New York City, New York, United States
Casualties
146 dead
70 injured

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was one of the largest industrial disasters in the history of the city of New York, causing the death of 146 garment workers, almost all of them women, who either died from the fire or jumped from the fatal height. It was the worst workplace disaster in New York City until September 11, 2001. Most women could not escape the burning building because the managers would lock the doors to the stairwells and exits to keep the workers from taking cigarette breaks outdoors during their shifts. Women jumped from the ninth and tenth stories as the ladders on the fire trucks could not reach these. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better and safer working conditions for sweatshop workers in that industry. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located inside the Asch Building, now known as the Brown Building of Science. It has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark.[1]

Contents

The fire

A horse-drawn fire engine en route to the burning factory.
The building's south side, with windows marked X from which fifty women jumped.
Tombstone of fire victim at the Hebrew Free Burial Association's Mount Richmond Cemetery.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory took up the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building. Under the ownership of Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the factory produced women's blouses (known at the time as "shirtwaists"). The factory normally employed about 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women, who normally worked nine hours a day on weekdays plus seven hours on Saturdays.[2]

On the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, just as the workday ended, a fire flared up in a scrap bin under one of the cutters' tables on the eighth floor.[3] The Fire Marshal concluded that the cause of the fire was likely the disposal of an unextinguished match or cigarette butt into Abramowitz's scrap bin; although smoking was banned in the factory, cutters were known to sneak cigarettes, exhaling the smoke through their lapels to avoid detection.[4] Other theories as to the cause of the fire have been put forward by various sources; a New York Times article suggested that the fire may have been started by the engines running the sewing machines in the building, while The Insurance Monitor, a leading industry journal, suggested that the epidemic of fires among shirtwaist manufacturers was "fairly saturated with moral hazard".[5] No accusation of arson was made in this specific case, however, as both owners of the factory were in attendance and had invited their children to the factory on that afternoon.[6]

A bookkeeper on the eighth floor was able to warn employees on the tenth floor via telephone, but there was no audible alarm and no way to contact staff on the ninth floor.[7] According to survivor Yetta Lubitz, the first warning of the fire on the ninth floor arrived at the same time as the fire itself.[8] The floor had a number of exits - two freight elevators, a fire escape, and stairways down to Greene Street and Washington Square - but flames prevented workers from descending the Greene Street stairway and the door to the Washington Square stairway was locked. Dozens of employees escaped the fire by going up the Greene Street stairway to the roof. Other survivors were able to jam themselves into the elevators while they still operated.

Within three minutes, however, the Greene Street stairway became unusable in either direction.[9] Terrified employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, a flimsy and poorly-anchored iron structure which may have been broken before the fire but in any event soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling victims onto the concrete pavement over a hundred feet below. The elevator operators, Joseph Zito [10] and Gaspar Mortillalo, saved many lives by travelling three times up to the ninth floor for passengers, but Mortillalo was eventually forced to give up when the rails of his elevator buckled under the heat. Some victims pried the elevator doors open and jumped down the empty shaft in a desperate attempt to avoid the flames; the weight of these bodies made it impossible for Zito to make another attempt.

Much to the horror of the large crowd of bystanders gathered on the street, sixty-two persons died by jumping or falling from the ninth floor.[11] Socialist Louis Waldman, later a New York state assemblyman, described the grim scene in his memoirs published in 1944:

One Saturday afternoon in March of that year — March 25, to be precise — I was sitting at one of the reading tables in the old Astor Library... It was a raw, unpleasant day and the comfortable reading room seemed a delightful place to spend the remaining few hours until the library closed. I was deeply engrossed in my book when I became aware of fire engines racing past the building. By this time I was sufficiently Americanized to be fascinated by the sound of fire engines. Along with several others in the library, I ran out to see what was happening, and followed crowds of people to the scene of the fire.

A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.

Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.

The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.[12]

The remainder waited until smoke and fire overcame them. The fire department arrived quickly but was unable to stop the flames, as there were no ladders available that could reach beyond the sixth floor. The fallen bodies and falling victims also made it difficult for the fire department to reach the building.

Although early references give the death toll as anywhere from 141[13] to 148,[14] almost all modern references agree that 146 people died as a result of the fire.[15][16][17][18][19] Six victims were never identified.[20] Most victims died of burns, asphyxiation, blunt impact injuries, or a combination of the three.[21]

It is often stated that most or all of the dead were women, but almost thirty of the victims were men. Eyewitnesses reported seeing men and women jumping out of the windows; the first jumper was a man, and another man was seen kissing a young woman at the window before they both jumped to their deaths.[22]

Aftermath

Twenty-three victims of the fire were buried by the Hebrew Free Burial Association in a special section at Mount Richmond Cemetery. In some instances, their tombstones make reference to the fire.[23] Another eight unidentified victims were buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn. Originally interred elsewhere in the grounds, the remains are now lie underneath a monument to the tragedy, a large marble slab featuring a kneeling woman [24].

Consequences

The building's east side, with 40 bodies on the sidewalk. Two of the victims were found alive an hour after the picture was taken.
Bodies of the victims being placed in coffins on the sidewalk.
People and horses draped in black walk in procession in memory of the victims.

The company's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had fled to the building's roof when the fire began and survived. They were later put on trial, at which Max Steuer, counsel for the defendants, managed to destroy the credibility of one of the survivors, Kate Alterman, by asking her to repeat her testimony a number of times — which she did without altering key phrases that Steuer believed were perfected before trial. Steuer argued to the jury that Alterman and probably other witnesses had memorized their statements and might even have been told what to say by the prosecutors. The defense also stressed that the prosecution had failed to prove that the owners knew the exit doors were locked at the time in question. The jury acquitted the owners. However, they lost a subsequent civil suit in 1913 and plaintiffs won compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty. In 1913, Blanck was once again arrested for locking the door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20.[25]

Rose Schneiderman, a prominent socialist and union activist, said in a speech at the memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911, to an audience largely made up of the members of the Women's Trade Union League, a group that had provided moral and financial support for the Uprising of 20,000:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.

This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.

We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

Public officials have only words of warning to us — warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

Others in the community, and in particular in the ILGWU,[26] drew a different lesson from events. Working with local Tammany Hall officials such as Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, and progressive reformers such as Frances Perkins, the future Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration, who had witnessed the fire from the street below, pushed for comprehensive safety and workers’ compensation laws. The ILGWU leadership formed bonds with those reformers and politicians that would continue for another forty years, through the New Deal and beyond.

As a result of the fire, the American Society of Safety Engineers was founded soon after in New York City, October 14, 1911.

See also


Further reading

Film

References

  1. ^ NYC Landmark
  2. ^ David von Drehle (2003). Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. pp. 105. ISBN 0-87113-874-3. 
  3. ^ von Drehle, p. 118.
  4. ^ von Drehle, p. 119.
  5. ^ von Drehle, p. 163.
  6. ^ von Drehle, p. 163.
  7. ^ von Drehle, p. 131.
  8. ^ von Drehle, pp. 141-142.
  9. ^ von Drehle, pp.143-144.
  10. ^ von Drehle, p. 157
  11. ^ Shepherd, William G. (1911-03-27), Eyewitness at the Triangle, http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/texts/stein_ootss/ootss_wgs.html?location=Fire!, retrieved 2007-09-02 
  12. ^ Waldman, Labor Lawyer, E.P. Dutton & Co., pp. 32-33.
  13. ^ "141 Men and Girls Die in Waist Factory Fire". The New York Times, March 26, 1911. Accessed December 20, 2009.
  14. ^ "New York Fire Kills 148: Girl Victims Leap to Death from Factory" (reprint). Chicago Sunday Tribune. 1911-03-26. p. 1. http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/texts/newspaper/cst_032611.html?location=Fire!. Retrieved 2007-10-03. 
  15. ^ von Drehle, passim
  16. ^ "In Memoriam: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire." The New York Times, March 26, 1997.
  17. ^ "The Triangle Factory Fire". The Kheel Center, Cornell University.
  18. ^ "98th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire". New York City Fire Department.
  19. ^ "Labor Department Remembers 95th Anniversary of Sweatshop Fire". US Department of Labor.
  20. ^ von Drehle, passim.
  21. ^ von Drehle, pp. 271-283.
  22. ^ von Drehle, pp. 155-157.
  23. ^ "HFBA Timeline". http://hebrewfreeburial.org/timeline.html. Retrieved 2009-03-26. 
  24. ^ "Evergreens Cemetery". http://www.theevergreenscemetery.com/stories/shirtwaist-fire/the-triangle-shirtwaist-fire. Retrieved 2009-05-28. 
  25. ^ John M Hoenig, The Triangle Fire of 1911, History Magazine, April/May 2005.
  26. ^ Jones, Gerard (2005). Men of Tomorrow. New York: Basic Books. pp. ]]. ISBN 0465036570. 
  27. ^ "Triangle Factory Fire Scandal DVD Movie". http://www.filmakers.com/index.php?a=filmDetail&filmID=323. Retrieved 2008-05-10. 
  28. ^ "Those Who Know Don't Tell". http://www.filmakers.com/indivs/ThoseWhoKnow.htm. Retrieved 2009-07-27. 

External links

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