The Fire

Bodies lying on street after jumping from Triangle fire / photo by Brown Brothers.

Bodies of jumpers laying in the streets outside of the Asch building

[Damaged fire escape at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company building after the 1911 fire, New York City] / photo by Brown Brothers.

Collapsed fire escape of the Asch building

[Interior view of room gutted by fire which killed 146 in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, New York City]

Interior view of a room in the Asch building gutted by the fire

At the end of the workday a little before 4:00 PM on March 25th, 1911, all of the Triangle Factory workers lined up single file to be let out of the building one by one.  Each worker would be inspected at the doorway to make sure they did not steal anything. The measures taken to make sure no one stole or left early were extremely extensive and resulted in several fire hazards.  All of the doors were locked during business hours which prevented workers from taking a break or leaving in protest (1). The only person with the key was the foreman (2).  This proved to be deadly less than 20 minutes later.

The fire was believed to be started by a discarded cigarette in a waste bin full of highly flammable fabric on the 8th floor (3).  As the workers were getting ready to go home after a gruelling day of nonstop physical labor, someone shouted "Fire!".  This sent all of the workers into a panic.  They desperately tried to break down the locked door that lead to the stairs.  Some workers were able to get in the elevator before it became too engulfed in flames.  Others tried the fire escape, which eventually collapsed due to being poorly maintained.  The workers on the 8th floor were able to break down the door and almost all were able to escape.  Before they left, they were able to phone the 10th floor and alert them about the fire.  Unfortunately, they were unable to reach the 9th floor, so by the time they realized there was a fire, it was too late.  The 10th floor was mainly offices and was also where the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were on the day of the fire.  All of the occupants of the 10th floor, except one, survived.  They were able to escape to the roof where they crossed over to another building by ladder.

For the women and men on the 9th floor, they were left with two options: jump or be burned alive.  Most resorted to jumping either solo, in pairs, or even in groups.  The force from the falling bodies snapped the firefighters' safety nets.  Their ladders only reached the 6th floor, rendering them useless.  Their hoses also could not reach the 8th floor of the Asch building, where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied floors 8,9 and 10.  Within just 15 minutes, the fire claimed the lives of 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women ranging from 16-21 (4).  120 of the casualties came from workers the 9th floor.

After an evaluation of the damage, the fire chief concluded nothing the department had could have been of any use.  A pile of charred bodies in front of a locked door measured to 6 feet tall.  The only fire escape in the building would have been able to evacuate the building in 3 hours, had it not collapsed.  It took only minutes for the fire to spread throughout the building.  Other things noted by both workers and the fire department was the fact that the water buckets were empty (3) and there were no sprinklers.  An order had gone out to all factories to install automatic sprinklers, but Blanck and Harris fought it because it would be a great expenditure (1).

Both the owners and the city were at fault for the extent of the fire's damage.  Blanck and Harris could be blamed because they did not follow fire safety regulations by locking the doors and not having sprinklers or full water buckets.  The city could be blamed for not enforcing the fire safety laws and turning a blind eye towards the Triangle Factory.  But, after Blanck and Harris' trial, no one was convicted.  This led to extreme unrest among the laborers and citizens of New York and across the nation.

Sources:

1. Jo Ann E. Argersinger, The Triangle Fire: A Brief History With Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2016,2009) 102-103.

2. "Triangle Shirtwaist Fire | AFL-CIO". 2019. Aflcio.Org. https://aflcio.org/about/history/labor-history-events/triangle-shirtwaist-fire.

3. Patrick J Kiger, How the Horrific Tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Led to Workplace Safety Laws (History.com, 2019).

4. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Memorial, Triangle History (2018)