Behind the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

This column is based on eyewitness accounts, trial transcripts, testimony, and information from the New York City Fire Dept. and the New York Historical Society.

It is the harrowingly small amount of sidewalk that may hit you when you stand in front of the building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where 100 years ago this March 25, 146 garment workers – 129 women, 17 men – perished in a murderous factory fire that ranks as one of the worst this nation has ever known.

Within this tiny space in time a century ago, immigrant workers from Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Russia, many of them Jewish, plunged to a horrific death, their hair and clothes on fire.

What else is striking is that this building is still with us today, it still stands in downtown New York City, east of Washington Square Park, as part of New York University.

Dig deeper, and you’ll see that a shocking lack of safety standards, and not surprisingly the cold calculus of money, caused this horrific fire.

Galvanizes Labor Movement

It was a fire that would change America’s labor laws and worker safety standards forever.

It would electrify a fledgling labor movement, galvanizing women workers into pushing forward the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which fought to stop sweatshop worker abuses, child labor abuses and countless other labor infractions – labor infractions that continue at oil rigs and coal and other mines around the world.

It is a fire that resonates to this day, as unions, artists and neighborhood groups plan to gather in front of the building this Friday, March 25, in commemoration and sorrow.

But the fire should not have been so appallingly lethal, since even the day after the fire, the walls and floors of the building remained largely intact, said my great grandfather, Thomas F. Dougherty, who helped run the New York City Fire Dept. for much of his 46-year career.

Dougherty analyzed, studied and worked on the fallout from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as assistant and acting chief of the department, and as Dean of the New York City Fire College.

There was something more beyond the infamous and well-known fact of locked exit doors imprisoning the workers in a deadly fire trap, my great grandfather and other top fire officials would warn.

Day of Infamy

Labor hazards ruled the day back then and management looked the other way, greedy until proven guilty. That was the political math at the time under the corrupt Tammany Hall regime that governed New York City.

“The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was a day of infamy,” says historian Lewis Lehrmman. “It reminds us that the role of government, while limited, must be to ensure public safety. Thus, the government must be strong enough to enforce the rules of the game. A referee without the power to throw the offender out of the game is an empty suit.”

Packed In

The owners of the factory packed 450 workers into the three top floors of a 10-story building.

Most of the workers ranged from ages 16 to 23 years old – one as young as 14, three were 15 years old — many of whom were the main support for their immigrant families, earning on average $15 a week.

They sat toiling away making cotton shirtwaists, or blouses, at five rows of sewing machines the owners purposely situated close together, leaving no room for aisles or idle chatter.

At quitting time on that Saturday, 4:45 p.m., as the shades lengthened and the late afternoon turned to twilight, tinting the factory windows dusky grey, the women and men packed their things, collected their pay, hoping to hurry home for supper.

The Fire Begins

But the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire had just begun. If the fire had started just minutes later, the workers would have been gone, and possibly no one would have died. Five hours earlier, other companies had already let their workers go home.

The fire broke out on the northeast corner of the Greene Street side of the eighth floor at a cutter’s table, possibly from a cigarette. With ferocious rapidity, the flames flashed through linens and cottons cluttering the floor, bins and on wires above.

At 4:46 p.m., the Fire Department received a report from the vicinity of the fire, from a citizen. At 4:48 p.m., the first alarm rang.

Locked Doors Thwarted Escape

The girls rushed away from the Greene Street staircase, blocked by flames, to the Washington Street staircase.

But the owners had locked the Washington Street exit doors, because they wanted to funnel the women through the Greene Street stairs, where a watchman could more easily check their bags for theft of linens or thread. The operators of the two overburdened freight elevators would make as many trips as they heroically could, but would soon stop altogether from the fire–from girls jumping into the shaft.

Before the first fire engine arrived, girls began jumping outside. They continued crashing around the firemen as they fought desperately to get their ladders up.

Anguish

Anguish shot through the firemen as they realized their ladders could only reach to the sixth floor of the building. A girl on the eighth floor tried to jump for a ladder, but missed it, hit the edge of a life net, and died.

Five little girls stood clutching each other on a ledge while a ladder worked toward them, stopping at its full length two stories down. A burst of flames, and the girls leapt, clinging to each other, fire streaming from their hair and dresses. Striking the glass sidewalk cover, meant to provide sunlight to cellars, they crashed into the basement.

A horse-drawn grocery wagon careened around the corner, its driver frantically calling onlookers to grip the sides of a wool horse blanket. Two terrified little girls clutched each other on an upper ledge as the fire roared. About one hundred feet below they looked down at Greene Street.

“C’mon, jump we’ll get you, jump,” they heard the cries from below. One little girl jumped. It didn’t work. Her friend followed. Both died.

Girls above watched those below leap to their deaths, but jumped anyway to avoid the flames.

Firemen running ahead of a horse drawn engine that had halted to avoid striking a body spread a fire net and looked up. One girl fell, end over end, struck the side of the net, and perished. Three other girls who followed died, too.

A girl all of about thirteen years old hung perilously for three minutes by her finger tips to a window sill on the tenth floor. A burst of flames hit her fingers and she plunged to her death.

A man stood at the reddened windows of the ninth floor furnace, gently helping four women jump “as if he were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity,” eye witness Bill Shepard reported. The last woman kissed him, then both plunged.

Another clutch of three little girls gripped each other, panic-stricken, white knuckled. “Hold still, the ladders are coming!” came the cries from below.

Hopeful, they clung to each other and waited – until a burst of flames knocked them out into the open air, where they fell, hair and clothes ablaze.

Yet another girl waved a handkerchief at the crowd and leapt from a window adjoining the New York University building. Her dress caught on a wire. The crowd watched her hang there until her dress burned free and she came toppling down.

Eyewitness Shepard saw much of this, and “heard screams around the corner, and hurried there. What I had seen before was not so terrible as what followed,” he would write. He continued:

“Girls were burning to death before our eyes.. Down came bodies in a shower, burning, smoking, lighted bodies, with the disheveled hair of the girls trailing upward. They had fought each other to die by jumping instead of by fire.

“There were 33 in that shower. The flesh of some of them was cooked. The clothes of most of them were burned away. The whole, sound, unharmed girls who jumped on the other side of the street had done their best to fall feet down, but these fire-tortured, suffering ones fell inertly, as if they didn’t care how they fell, just so that death came to them on the sidewalk instead of in the fiery furnace behind them.”

A crush of panicked workers flooded onto the single fire escape.

Fire Escape Collapses

But the arthritic trellis peeled away, tossing two dozen people a hundred feet to their deaths.

Sixty-two workers died jumping or falling. Another 30 workers jumped inside to their deaths in the elevator shaft.

The fire lasted less than a half hour.

Helplessly witnessing girls in the windows burning to death on the ninth floor before their very eyes, burning bodies in a shower welcoming the pavement, crowds on the streets below reeled in horror, battering themselves against police barricades in an hysterical frenzy of pain.

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