It was a regular Saturday afternoon, cold and clear, March 25, 1911. The concepts of a “weekend,” and the five day, 40 hour work week were decades from realization. The 500 or so workers of the Triangle Waist Company were on the job, churning out women’s blouses. The workforce was largely female, largely immigrant and largely between the ages of 18 and 23. Some were as young as 14 years old. They had a tough job, working six days a week, nine hours a day during the week and seven on Saturday. The pay was horrible and the conditions were worse, but it was a job – some of the only gainful employment these young women could find. It was just another sweatshop in the garment district of Manhattan.
That Saturday began the same way every Saturday did at the Triangle Factory. But it didn’t end that way. It ended in a tragedy.
Around 4:45 pm, near the end of the workday and when most had been preparing to leave, a fire broke out on the 8th floor in a bin filled with scraps that had been accumulating for months. It’s not certain what caused the fire, with claims that sparks from the machines or an errant match or cigarette could have been responsible. Regardless of the cause, the fire spread rapidly, and quickly consumed the 8th floor of the Asch Building at 23-29 Washington Place.
The Asch Building didn’t have fire alarms. Sprinkler systems, which had been in use in textile mills in the northeast as early as the 1850s and had become common in commercial buildings by the 1900s, weren’t installed either. The primary fire suppression system were pails of water that were kept on hand. On the 9th floor, which was totally consumed by the fire, a barrel of oil for the machines sat open under a window. The internal fire escape – the only in the building – was old and rusted. Exit doors were locked or swung inward, making them difficult to open. Wicker baskets full of scraps were scattered under the long rows of sewing machines the young women sat hovered over. The building owners and the Triangle owners claimed that the building was “fireproof” – which it was, full of asbestos that wouldn’t burn. But the people they employed weren’t fireproof, and little provision had been made for their safety. And many of the doors to the exits on these floors were locked.
As the flames spread rapidly from the 8th to the 9th and 10th floors, the factory descended into pandemonium. Panicking women crowded the elevators until the fire made them unworkable. They crammed against doors that were locked, some crushed to death. The fire escape collapsed under the weight of so many bodies trying to use it. Others didn’t make it that far, and the charred remains of 50 workers were found on the 9th floor alone. Workers fled to the windows.
Crowds of bystanders started flocking to see what was happening, as fire engines rushed to the scene. The bystanders watched as women, faced with a no-win scenario, chose to jump to their deaths rather than be burned alive in the flames. Witnesses recall seeing a young man and young woman kissing in a window before the pair jumped to their deaths. The building was soon cordoned off, but the crowd – hysterical at the sights before them – almost overwhelmed police. Firefighters had difficulty approaching the building because of the falling workers.
Even those that could get close enough could do little to help. The firefighters were unable to rescue survivors, as their ladders only reached as high as the sixth floor. And the height was such that their nets weren’t strong enough to catch people who were jumping.
By nightfall, 146 men and women were dead. Some of their bodies were so badly burned that they remained unidentified until February 2011. That’s right – last month. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was the worst industrial accident in New York City’s history, and the fourth worst industrial accident in American history.
The owners of Triangle were charged with manslaughter, but were acquitted. They eventually were forced to pay $75 to each of the families of the victims after they lost a civil suit. Two years later, one of the owners of Triangle was fined $20 for locking the doors of his factory again.
The aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire still reaches out from history to touch us today. The fire became a rallying call for labor reform throughout New York and the nation, and was instrumental in the passage of sweeping new labor laws in New York in the second decade of the 20th century. Those laws became the model for the modern system of labor law that exists today. Beyond labor law, the Triangle fire was the pivotal event in the history of fire codes in the United States. Today, we all work in safer buildings, largely because of the sacrifice of the workers at Triangle. The impact of the Triangle fire on American history cannot be understated.
This year is the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. When I am often asked by my Republican friends how I can support the labor movement, I remind them of events like Triangle. It took a tragedy to bring about common sense reforms. While we have come far from the days of Triangle, many of the reforms and the protections workers enjoy today without question were fought for and bargained for because of events like Triangle. And, just as often, they only came about because of needless tragedies like Triangle. All too often we legislate in reaction to tragedy, rather than legislate to prevent it. The lessons of the Triangle fire are still there, waiting for a new generation to learn and discover them.
But most important, we must never forget.