Vintage: The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, New York City, US
2021 is the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, New York City, US, on 25 March 1911
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of Manhattan, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city and one of the deadliest in US history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, 123 women and girls and 23 men, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation or falling/jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls aged 14 to 23. Because the doors to the stairwells and exits were locked, a then-common practice to prevent workers from taking unauthorised breaks and to reduce theft, many of the 700 workers could not escape from the burning building and jumped from the high windows.
The factory was located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building, at 23–29 Washington Place, near Washington Square Park. The 1901 building still stands today and is now known as the Brown Building. It is part of and owned by New York University.
At approximately 16h40 on Saturday, 25 March 1911, as the workday was ending, a fire flared up in a scrap bin under one of the cutter's tables at the northeast corner of the 8th floor. The first fire alarm was sent at 16h45 by a passerby on Washington Place who saw smoke coming from the 8th floor. Both owners of the factory were in attendance and had invited their children to the factory on that afternoon.
The fire marshal concluded that the likely cause of the fire was the disposal of an unextinguished match or cigarette butt in the scrap bin, which held two months' worth of accumulated cuttings by the time of the fire.
Beneath the table in the wooden bin were hundreds of pounds of scraps left over from the several thousand shirtwaists that had been cut at that table. The scraps piled up from the last time the bin was emptied, coupled with the hanging fabrics that surrounded it; the steel trim was the only thing that was not highly flammable. Although smoking was banned in the factory, cutters were known to sneak cigarettes, exhaling the smoke through their lapels to avoid detection. A New York Times article suggested that the fire may have been started by the engines running the sewing machines. A series of articles in Collier's noted a pattern of arson among certain sectors of the garment industry whenever their particular product fell out of fashion or had excess inventory in order to collect insurance. The Insurance Monitor, a leading industry journal, observed that shirtwaists had recently fallen out of fashion and that insurance for manufacturers of them was "fairly saturated with moral hazard." Although Blanck and Harris were known for having had four previous suspicious fires at their companies, arson was not suspected in this case.
A bookkeeper on the 8th floor was able to warn employees on the 10th floor via telephone but there was no audible alarm and no way to contact staff on the 9th floor. According to survivor Yetta Lubitz, the first warning of the fire on the 9th floor arrived at the same time as the fire itself. Although the floor had a number of exits, including two freight elevators, a fire escape and stairways down to Greene Street and Washington Place, flames prevented workers from descending the Greene Street stairway and the door to the Washington Place stairway was locked to prevent theft by the workers; the locked doors allowed managers to check the women's purses. The foreman who held the stairway door key had already escaped by another route. 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 continued to operate.
Within three minutes, the Greene Street stairway became unusable in both directions. Terrified employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, which city officials had allowed Asch to erect instead of the required third staircase, a flimsy and poorly anchored iron structure that may have been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling about 20 victims nearly 30m to their deaths on the concrete pavement below. The remainder waited until smoke and fire overcame them.
The fire department arrived quickly but was unable to stop the flames, as their ladders were only long enough to reach as high as the 7th floor. The fallen bodies and falling victims also made it difficult for the fire department to approach the building.
Elevator operators Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillaro saved many lives by traveling three times up to the 9th floor for passengers but Mortillaro 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 into the empty shaft, trying to slide down the cables or to land on top of the car. The weight and impacts of these bodies warped the elevator car and made it impossible for Zito to make another attempt. William Gunn Shepard, a reporter at the tragedy, would say that "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".
A large crowd of bystanders gathered on the street, witnessing 62 people jumping or falling to their deaths from the burning building.
Although early references of the death toll ranged from 141 to 148, almost all modern references agree that 146 people died as a result of the fire: 123 women and girls and 23 men. Most victims died of burns, asphyxiation, blunt impact injuries, or a combination of the three.
Bodies of the victims were taken to Charities Pier, also called Misery Lane, located at 26th street and the East River, for identification by friends and relatives. Victims were interred in 16 different cemeteries. 22 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 refer to the fire. Six victims remained unidentified until Michael Hirsch, a historian, completed four years of researching newspaper articles and other sources for missing persons and were able to identify each of them by name. Those six victims were buried together in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn. Originally interred elsewhere on the grounds, their remains now lie beneath a monument to the tragedy, a large marble slab featuring a kneeling woman.
Following the fire, new legislation was created to help ensure workplace and home safety, there were sweeping New York State inspections and investigations of factories and FDNY began teaching fire safety and prevention, conducting fire drills in factories throughout New York City. The Triangle fire catalysed reforms in New York that spread nationwide; outward-swinging exit doors and sprinklers in high-rise buildings, for example.
The FDNY Fire Safety Education Unit’s goal is to eliminate residential fire deaths in New York City by continually education the public with critical, lifesaving information.
Sources: Fire Department New York (FDNY), The Smithsonian Magazine, Wikipedia