Today is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that occurred on March 25th, 1911.
Located on the top three floors of the Asch Building (now known as the Brown Building), the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was at the corner of 29 Washington Place. The fire broke out on the 8th floor, at 4PM from what witness said was a scrap clothing basket, most likely from a discarded cigarette. The fire spread quickly, jumping from fabric to fabric causing the workers to panicked. In what could only be described as complete pandemonium, everyone rushed towards the doors. But the stairwell was only 2-feet wide, causing more panic. The doors only opened one way, instead of two and because the law didn’t require it, there were no ceiling sprinklers.
Those located on the 10th floor were alerted by the switchboard operator and escaped to the roof where they were rescued by nearby buildings via ladders. Because of an error by the switchboard operator, the 9th floor wasn’t alerted of the fire.
When the fire entered the 9th floor, the workers were unprepared and panic soon ensued. The stairwells were blocked by the 300 sewing machines or locked by their managers leaving only the elevator to escape in. An elevator which was only meant to hold 11 riders, were holding twice the load. Some, who couldn’t get on the elevator, jumped into the shaft with intentions to land on top of the elevator floors below. Those who couldn’t get onto the elevator took their lives in their hands and began to edge their ways onto the window ledges.
The fire department tried to raise its ladders to rescue the workers, only to find they weren’t tall enough. They couldn’t reach the 9th floor of the Asch building, so workers began to jump. 18 minutes after the fire, all the workers were out of the building.
In the end, 90 people jumped to their deaths.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire became the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City, and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in US history. The fire caused the deaths of 141 to 148 garment workers, many whom were women though there were 30 male victims, who either died from the fire or jumping to their deaths. The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Harris and Blanck, were acquitted of any charges by an all male jury.
The legislation that came out of the fire required improved factory safety standards, gave minimum wage, spurred the growth of worker’s right and marked what many believe, to be the beginning of the New Deal.
/ March 25, 2011 / 61