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.
- 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