I’m currently on a tour bus heading to NYC. During our New York wanderings, we’ll be near the Greenwich Village area. Back in 1911, this neighborhood witnessed the most grisly industrial disaster in the history of New York City - the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire. This week marks the 108th anniversary of the catastrophe. It’s a sad story filled with searing imagery.
During the turn-of-the-century era, in order to prevent theft and stop workers from taking unauthorized breaks during their shift, many industrial facilities locked their doors. While effective in preventing unauthorized employee exits, the practice also was a great danger if an emergency evacuation became necessary.
Now enter the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Owned by Russian immigrants Max Blanck & Isaac Harris, the booming facility produced women’s blouses (then called ‘shirtwaists’) on the 8th, 9th & 10th floors of the Asch Building (now a historic landmark near Washington Square Park).
Towards the end of the workday on Saturday, March 25th, 1911, a fire broke out on the 8th floor. It was likely caused by a match or cigarette ill-disposed in a cloth-scrap-bin. The fire spread rapidly. Soon the unlocked escape routes were blocked. The best remaining exit was rendered unusable by a locked door (the factory foreman who possessed the key had already fled the building).
The fire companies who responded had no ladders that could reach above the 6th floor. Terrified factory workers were compelled to use the flimsy fire escape - which quickly collapsed under their weight. People began jumping to avoid the rising blaze. In total, 146 garment workers (most of them young immigrant women) would perish, including 62 who jumped or fell to their death. One agonized eye witness account of the scene reported that,
Horrified and helpless, the crowds—I among them—looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.
The resulting furor over the disaster would herald widespread changes in worker rights and labor laws. Soon after, laws providing for improved building access and egress, sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers, hourly work limits (and much more) were adopted throughout New York State & the nation. Of course, these overdue mandates did little to assuage the anguish of devastated families victimized by the fire.
As of today, a permanent memorial honoring the dead and remembering the horrible event is still in-the-works. For updates, visit the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition website.