146 Workers Killed in Garment Factory Fire
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
23-29 Washington Place, Manhattan, New York
March 25, 1911

(Scroll down for photos from the fire)

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City burned, killing 146 workers. It is remembered as one of the most infamous incidents in American industrial history, as the deaths were largely preventable–most of the victims died as a result of neglected safety features and locked doors within the factory building. The tragedy brought widespread attention to the dangerous sweatshop conditions of factories of the era and led to the development of a series of laws and regulations that better protected the safety of workers.

The 10-story iron and steel loft building located at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in the Greenwich Village section of lower Manhattan was constructed in 1901. The structure was supported by iron and steel reinforced masonry walls while the floors, interior trim, and window frames were wood. Known as the Asch Building, it was noted for its “fireproof” rooms, which attracted many garment makers including the owners of the Triangle Waist Company who occupied the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors. The company specialized in manufacturing shirtwaists; ladies’ cotton and linen blouses that buttoned down the front and could be easily tucked into skirts. The building was equipped with only two narrow poorly illuminated stairways serving all floors and a rickety exterior fire escape that terminated at the second floor, not at the ground. The building had four elevators that accessed the factory floors, however only one was operational the day of the fire. Workers had to file down a long narrow corridor to reach it. The building was also not equipped with fire sprinklers but had fire hose stations on all floors.

Unsafe as these conditions were, these features of the building’s construction were only part of the fire danger that workers unwittingly faced every day. The rooms on the upper three floors were packed with combustible materials, including clothing products hanging from lines above workers’ heads, rows of tightly spaced sewing machines, cutting tables bearing bolts of cloth, and linen and cotton cuttings littering the floors, that resulted in a massive spread of fire occurring in the matter of seconds. The rooms on each floor were overcrowded because there was no limit at the time as to how many people could occupy one floor.

The Triangle factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, employed young immigrant women who worked in the cramped space at lines of sewing machines. Nearly all the workers were teen-aged girls who did not speak English and worked 12 hours a day, every day. There were two stairways down to the street, but one was locked from the outside to prevent stealing and the other only opened inward. The fire escape was so narrow that it would have taken hours for all the workers to use it, even in the best of circumstances.

On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were 600 workers at the factory when a fire began in a rag bin. The manager attempted to use the fire hose to extinguish it, but was unsuccessful, as the hose was rotted, and its valve was rusted shut. As the fire grew, panic ensued. The young workers tried to exit the building by the elevator, but it could hold only 12 people and the operator was able to make just four trips back and forth before it broke down amid the heat and flames. In a desperate attempt to escape the fire, the girls left behind waiting for the elevator plunged down the shaft to their deaths. The girls who fled via the stairwells also met awful demises–when they found a locked door at the bottom of the stairs, many were burned alive.

Those workers who were on floors above the fire, including the owners, escaped to the roof and then to adjoining buildings. As firefighters arrived, they witnessed a horrible scene. The girls who did not make it to the stairwells or the elevator were trapped by the fire inside the factory and began to jump from the windows to escape. Arriving firefighters could do little to save the women. The bodies of the jumpers fell on the fire hoses, making it difficult to begin fighting the fire. Also, the firefighter’s ladders reached only seven floors high, and the fire was on the eighth floor. In one case, a life net was unfurled to catch jumpers, but three girls jumped at the same time, ripping the net. Firefighters attempted to stretch hose lines into the building but were hampered by the crush of workers crowding the stairways. Several water towers and exterior streams were put into operation in the hopes that they could control the fire.

A survivor of the incident indicated that there had been a blue glow coming from a bin under a table where 120 layers of fabric had just been stacked prior to cutting. Fire rose from the bin, ignited the tissue paper templates hung from the ceiling, and spread across the room. Once ignited, the tissue paper floated off haphazardly from table to table, setting off fires as it went. Many people died during the fire, some from inhaling thick smoke or from being burned to death.

Workers piled up at the entrance of the stairway because the stairway which had no landing was too dark for see down the steps. In the panic during the fire many people were crushed to death from behind while workers were attempting to get through the locked doors. As for the elevators, the owners and their family went into the elevator, which only could have held twelve people and escaped the building. The owner told the elevator operator to send the elevator back up; however, by the time the elevator made its way back, the fire was fully engaged on the eighth floor and quickly spreading to the ninth.

Although there was the option of using the fire escape to get out of the burning building, only few did manage to escape through it. The fire escape eventually collapsed from the weight of the crowd of workers trying to get out of the building. Prior to the fire escape collapsing, people still could not make it to the ground safely, because the ladder from the fire escape did not reach the ground, nor was it close enough for people to jump down, which led to many more deaths. Within 18 minutes, it was all over. 49 workers had burned to death or been suffocated by smoke, 36 were dead in the elevator shaft and 58 died from jumping to the sidewalks. With 2 more dying later from their injuries, a total of 146 people were killed by the fire.

In the end, the eighth floor where the fire began was gutted and the upper floors were also heavily damaged. The building itself sustained no structural damage and was restored into full operation within a few months. The site of the fire, now known as the Brown Building, is owned and occupied by New York University. A library now occupies the eighth floor where the fire began. There are three memorial plaques on the southeast corner of the building to commemorate the men and women who lost their lives in the fire. In 2019, a new larger historical memorial was approved to be installed on the side of the building. The display will feature horizontal stainless-steel bands with the engraved names of the victims wrapped around the southeast corner and vertical panels of textured stainless steel on the building corner reaching from the street to the eighth floor.

As a result of this fire, there were several new building and safety regulations required in the city. Mandatory fire drills, periodic fire inspections, working fire standpipe hoses, fire sprinklers, exit signs and fire alarms, doors that swung in the direction of travel and stairway size restrictions were instituted throughout the city and country. The Chief of the FDNY, Edward F. Croker suggested alternatives for constructing fireproof buildings, such as eliminating all wood and using metal, terra cotta, or concrete, and for establishing adequate exit routes. His ideas were the foundation of the Fire Prevention Law of 1911, a direct result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy. The law was amended the following year to increase the power of the Fire Commissioner to enforce fire drills in factories, businesses, hospitals, schools, and other institutions.

After the fire, Chief Croker testified before the New York State Factory Investigating Commission established to determine fault for the deaths of 146 people. The following statement illustrates the fact that he found immediate enforcement of the law critical and would not tolerate its negligence by business owners: “I have found that the owner with any intelligence is more than ready to bear this trifling expense in loss of workers’ time, once he has been shown the inestimable advantage to himself, from the practical as well as the humanitarian point of view, which these measures will inevitably bring.” The Chief was so moved by the tragedy that he resigned his position with the FDNY and started his own private company for training building employees in fire safety measures and conducting regular fire drills. The Croker Fire Drill Corporation is still in operation today and is responsible for staff fire and life safety training in thousands of commercial buildings, high rises, and health care facilities across the eastern seaboard of the United States.

The owners of the factory later faced criminal trials but after the lengthy testimony of over 200 witnesses, the jury returned a not guilty verdict. A juror later stated that the prosecution failed to prove that the owners knew that one of the exits was locked. Three years after the fire, on March 11, 1914, twenty-three individual civil suits against the owner of the Asch Building were settled. The average recovery was $75 per life lost.

Commentary:
Many of the fire and life safety features that we have become accustomed to finding in all types of occupancies today are a direct result of reforms that were instituted following this tragedy and several other high profile high loss of life fires of the early 20th century such as the Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago (1903 – 602 deaths), the General Slocum steamship fire in New York City (1904 – 1,021 deaths), and the Rhodes Opera House Fire in Boyertown PA (1908 -171 deaths). Finally, the value of life safety was being considered with equal weight as property protection in fire codes and regulations. Yet we must persist in fighting for further fire protection improvements while we continue to suffer catastrophic fire losses especially in crowded public assembly occupancies like the Happy Land nightclub fire in the Bronx in that killed 87 people in 1990 and the Station Nightclub fire in West Warwick Rhode Island that cost 100 lives in 2003.

We all must understand that the tragic history of fire deaths in this country has woven an awful legacy in our fire and building codes. It seems that only after the latest fire disaster, is there a cry for immediate changes in our laws and regulations. We have watched this pattern for the last 100 years yet as a culture we continue to accept these losses. We only can wonder when and where the next catastrophic event will occur.

We have attached several photos from the fire. Be warned some of the photos are graphic images of victims of the incident. We have also included a link to an excellent PBS documentary of the incident:
https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1itk1p

Posted to Facebook by Rick DeGroot, a Fire Instructor at Chester County Dept. of Emergency Services and Consultant at The Rogers Group LLC/Lexipol LLC. Based in West Chester, PA

 

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