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L’Histoire de Mode~Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

File:TriangleTradeParade.jpg

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on

March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the

history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest

loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. The fire

caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who either died

from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Most of the victims were

recent immigrant Jewish women aged sixteen to twenty-three.

Many of the workers could not escape the burning building because the

managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits. People jumped from

the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. The fire led to legislation requiring improved

factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union,

which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was

located in the Asch Building, now known as the Brown Building of Science, a New York University facility.

It has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and

a New York City landmark.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors

of the Asch Building. Under the ownership of Max Blanck and Isaac Harris,

the factory produced women’s blouses, known as “shirtwaists.” The factory normally

employed about 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women, who worked nine

hours a day on weekdays plus seven hours on Saturdays.

On the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, as the workday was ending, a fire

flared up in a scrap bin under one of the cutters’ tables on the eighth floor.Both owners of the

factory were in attendance and had invited their children to the factory on that afternoon.

The Fire Marshal concluded that the likely cause of the fire was the disposal of an

unextinguished match or cigarette butt in the scrap bin. Although smoking was banned in the

factory, cutters were known to sneak cigarettes, exhaling the smoke through their lapels

to avoid detection. A New York Times article suggested that the fire may have been

started by the engines running the sewing machines, while The Insurance Monitor, a leading

industry journal, suggested that the epidemic of fires among shirtwaist manufacturers

was “fairly saturated with moral hazard.” No one suggested arson.

A bookkeeper on the eighth floor was able to warn employees on the

tenth floor via telephone, but there was no audible alarm and no way

to contact staff on the ninth floor. According to survivor

Yetta Lubitz, the first warning of the fire on the ninth

floor arrived at the same time as the fire itself.

The floor had a number of exits – two freight elevators, a

fire escape, and stairways down to Greene Street and

Washington Square – but flames prevented workers from

descending the Greene Street stairway and the door to the Washington Square

stairway was locked to prevent theft and the foreman who held the

key had escaped by another route.

Dozens of employees escaped the fire by going up the Greene Street

stairway to the roof. Other survivors were able to jam themselves into the elevators

while they continued to operate. Within three minutes, the Greene Street stairway

became unusable in both directions. Terrified employees crowded

onto the single exterior fire escape, a flimsy and poorly-anchored iron structure

which may have been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed from the

heat and overload, spilling victims to their deaths onto the concrete pavement

nearly a hundred feet below. Elevator operators Joseph Zito

and Gaspar Mortillalo saved many lives by traveling three times up

to the ninth floor for passengers, but Mortillalo was eventually forced

to give up when the rails of his elevator buckled under the heat. Some victims pried

the elevator doors open and jumped down the empty shaft. The weight of these

bodies made it impossible for Zito to make another attempt.

As a large crowd of bystanders gathered on the street, sixty-two people

died by jumping or falling from the ninth floor. Louis Waldman, later a

New York Socialist state assemblyman, described the scene years later:

One Saturday afternoon in March of that year — March 25, to be precise — I was sitting at one of the reading tables in the old Astor Library… It was a raw, unpleasant day and the comfortable reading room seemed a delightful place to spend the remaining few hours until the library closed. I was deeply engrossed in my book when I became aware of fire engines racing past the building. By this time I was sufficiently Americanized to be fascinated by the sound of fire engines. Along with several others in the library, I ran out to see what was happening, and followed crowds of people to the scene of the fire. A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.

Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. 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 emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.

The remainder waited until smoke and fire overcame them. The fire

department arrived quickly but was unable to stop the flames,

as there were no ladders available that could reach beyond

the sixth floor. The fallen bodies and falling victims also

made it difficult for the fire department

to reach the building. Bodies of the

victims being placed in coffins

on the sidewalk.

Although early references of the death toll ranged from 141 to 148, almost all modern

references agree that 146 people died as a result of the fire. Six victims remained

unidentified until 2011. Most victims died of burns, asphyxiation,

blunt impact injuries, or a combination of the three. Almost thirty

of the victims were men. The first person to jump was a man, and another man

was seen kissing a young woman at the window before they

both jumped to their deaths.

Twenty-two victims of the fire were buried by the

Hebrew Free Burial Association in a special section at Mount

Richmond Cemetery. In some instances, their tombstones refer to the fire.

Another six victims were buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in

Brooklyn. Originally interred elsewhere on the grounds, their

remains now lie underneath a monument to the tragedy,

a large marble slab featuring a kneeling woman.

Six of those victims were identified in February 2011.

The company’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had fled to the building’s roof

when the fire began and survived. They were later put on trial, at which Max Steuer, counsel for

the defendants, managed to destroy the credibility of one of the survivors, Kate Alterman,

by asking her to repeat her testimony a number of times — which she did without altering

key phrases that Steuer believed were perfected before trial. Steuer argued to the jury that

Alterman and probably other witnesses had memorized their statements and might even

have been told what to say by the prosecutors. The defense also stressed that the

prosecution had failed to prove that the owners knew the exit doors were locked at the

time in question. The jury acquitted the owners. However, they lost a subsequent

civil suit in 1913 and plaintiffs won compensation in the amount of $75 per

deceased victim. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris about

$60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty. In 1913, Blanck

was once again arrested for locking the door in his factory

during working hours. He was fined $20.

Rose Schneiderman, a prominent socialist and union activist, gave a
speech at the memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House
on April 2, 1911, to an audience largely made up of the members of the
Women’s Trade Union League. She used the fire as an argument
for factory workers to organize and not rely on the “good people
of the public….We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now,
and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers,
brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the
workers come out in the only way they know to protest against
conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is
allowed to press down heavily upon us….I know from my
experience it is up to the working people to save themselves.
The only way they can save themselves is by a strong
working-class movement.”

Films

  • American Experience: Triangle Fire (2011), documentary produced and directed by Jamila Wignot, narrated by Michael Murphy
  • The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal (1979), directed by Mel Stuart, produced by Mel Brez and Ethel Brez
  • Those Who Know Don’t Tell: The Ongoing Battle for Workers’ Health (1990), produced by Abby Ginzberg, narrated by Studs Terkel
  • With These Hands (1950), directed by Jack Arnold
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