At the turn of the 20th century in the United States, most workers had precious few rights. Few belonged to unions. And many endured deplorable conditions, dangerous tasks, grueling hours and oppressive wages.
But events on the Saturday afternoon of March 25, 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, stirred America to move to protect workers. In less than 20 minutes, 146 people were dead – some burned to death; others leaped to their deaths from 100 feet up – victims of one of the worst factory fires in America’s history.
After a successful strike two years earlier by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) Local 25 helped deliver better wages and working conditions to 15,000 garment workers in New York City, the owners of the Triangle factory, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, continued to refuse to recognize unions, update any of their safety measures and continued to operate what was described as a sweatshop, producing the highly popular women’s shirtwaist, a tailored blouse. Coincidentally, the strike was called when the owners of the Triangle factory fired 150 suspected union sympathizers. While Harris and Blanck grew rich tapping into the trendy clothing’s popularity, workers languished in deplorable and unsafe conditions.
Join us as we make our way through Manhattan and visit the places where fate and tragedy met, where landmarks remind the living of the sacrifices of those who went before us, and where people worked together to change America’s laws and start the United States on a path where workers are fairly compensated and protected from undue danger and peril.
About the Fire
At 4:45 in the afternoon of March 25, 1911, the four-month anniversary of a fire in a Newark, N.J., which killed 25 people, fire broke out in a cutting area on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in Greenwich Village, in New York City. Within minutes, the top three floors of the Asch Building at 23-29 Washington Street were engulfed in flames. Many of the staff, mostly recently immigrated Jewish and Italian women, some as young as 14, were trapped in a building that claimed to be fireproof. Some began to fall and jump from the windows. Police and firefighters from nearby stations were impeded by the bodies on the sidewalk.
The harrowing accounts ring as unnerving and as unsettling today as they were 100 years ago – groups of young women leaping to their deaths, a man dropping women out the windows, falling bodies ripping through the fire departments’ nets and gruesome accounts of bodies piling up on the sidewalk and blocking the fire engines, and inside, skeletal remains slouched over sewing machines and charred bodies piled up by locked and blocked doorways. A combination of callous management, overcrowding and hazardous work conditions, and ill-conceived architecture conspired to cut short so many lives.
The architect was given special permission to make only two staircases, instead of three. A flimsy iron fire escape that stopped at the second floor was passed off as a third staircase. Exit doors opened inward to the space, making it nearly impossible to open the doors amid the crush of panic-stricken workers. Managers often locked the exits to prevent workers from sneaking out for a break and to prevent theft. Those locked doors prevented workers from escaping the flames. Other exits were blocked with boxes of scrap fabric which had been accumulating for nearly six months.
A steady stream of workers filed out onto the fire escape which before long, collapsed under the weight of the people and the heat of the fire sending several people to their deaths from a six-story fall. Elevator operators worked feverishly to bring groups of workers to safety, 10 at a time. Still, some workers flung themselves down the elevator shaft to escape the flames, their bodies crashing onto the car filled with terrified escapees. Estimates peg the number of workers on those top three floors at 500 or more.
The fire fighters from local Ladder Company 20 arrived minutes after the flames erupted. Because the hoses were too weak and the ladders too short to reach above the sixth floor, the men simply sprayed the building in the hopes the mist from the water would cool the victims trapped above.
At a local police station, a makeshift morgue was quickly overwhelmed. Bodies of the fall victims lay where they fell, some covered with tarps, others exposed to the elements. Within 25 minutes, burned and broken bodies alike lined Green Street awaiting a friend or family member to recognize and claim them. Some would never be identified. Others were found by a mark on their stockings or a ring.
The Bellevue morgue became overrun and a nearby pier was employed as a makeshift morgue. Family and friends filed by the bodies in an effort to find and claim a loved one.
To learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, click here.