Sunday, March 25, 2007

This Date in Fire History: March 25

Today marks the 96th anniversary of one of the most tragic fires in history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, occupied the top three floors (the eighth through tenth) of the Asch Building, located at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Manhattan. Like most garment factories of the day, Triangle was a slightly-improved sweatshop: hundreds of workers -- many of them young immigrant girls -- working long hours for low wages in abysmal conditions. The girls, some of them as young as twelve or thirteen, worked fourteen-hour shifts during a 72-hour workweek, and made about $1.50 per week.

The Asch Building had two narrow stairwells, two freight elevators, one passenger elevator (which wasn't in use on that fateful Saturday), and a rickety iron outside fire escape. When the building was started in 1900, fire codes were in their infancy; even then, however, the architects and builders cut some corners - to get the necessary permits, they promised authorities to make some changes to the blueprints... changes that were never incorporated into the finished building. Nevertheless, the building was considered "fireproof", which was effectively true: the building itself sustained only minor damage. It was the human beings within the building that paid the price.

The eighth and ninth floors were crowded with long tables, each containing about 25 sewing machines. The tables stretched from one wall almost to the opposite wall, leaving only a narrow aisle. The rows of tables were so close to each other that only one employee at a time could move to or from her machine.

Illustration by Nick Rotondo ©2005,
(Used by permission)

Fire sprinklers had been in use in warehouses for about twenty years, and their value had been proven time and again, but they weren't installed in the Asch Building. A standpipe system (fire hoses attached to plumbing in the stairwells) was in place, but apparently did not work. Fire safety was provided by about 30 leather pails of water on each floor. To make matters worse, the longest ladders on fire apparatus of the day only reached to about the sixth floor.

Triangle was one of many companies that manufactured the "shirtwaist" blouse made famous by Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girl", an idealized woman, both liberated (by the standards of the day; they still couldn't vote) and feminine. The shirtwaist was the epitome of women's fashions in the early years of the 20th Century. Shortly after World War I, however, the soft, elegant gowns and shirtwaists of the Gibson era were supplanted by the more mannish fashions of Coco Chanel and others.

Of course, in 1911, a "World War" was inconceivable. A musical style called "ragtime" was sweeping the nation, exemplified by Scott Joplin's magnificent Maple Leaf Rag, which had sold over one million copies. Prohibition was still in the future, although the temperance movement was gaining strength. The growth of major cities brought educational, professional, and cultural advances to more people than ever before.

The future looked bright. America was becoming the "shining beacon" of hope and progress, not only to the undeveloped countries, but also to Europe. Immigration was swelling the United States population, and the mix of new cultures, languages, and customs made American culture far richer.

The industrialization of America was well underway. Henry Ford was cranking out cars in Detroit, factories like the Triangle were replacing the smaller family shops of the past, and the unionization of workers was beginning: a 1909 strike by women's shirtwaist makers, known as the "Uprising of 20,000," started with a spontaneous walkout at Triangle.

Saturday, March 25, 1911, was a warm spring day, and about 4:45 PM, the roughly 700 Triangle employees were getting ready to quit for the day when a worker spotted smoke curling from one of the scrap bins under the sewing machine tables on the eighth floor. Within seconds, the flames had spread to the tables themselves, and then to the flimsy patterns hanging overhead. One employee used a "teleautograph" -- an early ancestor of the fax machine -- to alert other workers but was unable to transmit the message properly. A telephone call to the offices on the tenth floor warned the employees there, but the alarm was not passed to those on the ninth floor. Almost all of the workers on the eighth floor were able to escape, as were most of those on ten (who climbed across ladders stretched from the adjacent New York University School of Law, across the alley from the Asch Building).

The workers on the ninth floor did not learn of the fire until it blew in through the windows. Again, the fire fed hungrily on the fabric scraps, paper patterns, oil-soaked wood and other combustibles. Women raced for both stairwells, but found one of the locked (in an effort to prevent theft). The door to the second stairwell opened into the work area; the crush of fleeing girls prevented the door from opening. The operators of the freight elevators made several trips to the ninth floor and were able to rescue several dozen workers. Others attempted to go down the exterior fire escape, but steel shutters over the ladders obstructed their passage. This may have been a blessing in disguise, for the escape could not support the weight of the girls, and collapsed, spilling many into the courtyard nine floors below.

With nowhere else to go, hundreds of girls crowded the windows, trying to escape the fire. Some fell, some may have been pushed, but many decided to jump. In a scene eerily prescient of 2001, they plunged to the pavement, choosing the quick and relatively painless death of jumping over the slow and agonizing death by suffocation due to smoke, or the excrutiating pain of burning to death. Others threw themselves down the elevator shafts, crashing themselves against the tops of the cars.

FDNY Engine 72, which was quartered only a few blocks from the Asch Building, was on the scene within five or six minutes, even before the fire had fully engulfed the ninth and tenth floors, but there was nothing they could do. Their ladders didn't reach the trapped workers, and their hoses couldn't shoot water high enough to protect them. Firefighters set up safety nets, but victims tore right through them. Their only viable option was to mount an interior attack, and try to fight their way to the trapped victims.

Despite having gotten the fire under control in about twenty minutes, 146 people had died, about one-third of them having jumped or fallen to their deaths. At least 60 bodies were recovered from the upper floors, primarily the ninth floor; many were burned beyond recognition, making subsequent identification impossible in some cases (seven unidentified bodies were buried).

As is often the case after a multiple-fatality fire, numerous investigations were launched, most with the laudible goal of "ensuring this never happens again." Manslaughter charges were filed against Blanck and Harris, but they were acquitted after a brilliant performance by defense attorney Max Steuer. The city created the "Factory Invesigating Commission" to examine the need for new legislation to prevent future fire disasters. The members of the Commission included State Senator Robert F. Wagner (who went on to the United States Senate, where he was instrumental in passing many labor-friendly laws), State Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith (a future candidate for President), and Samuel L. Gompers, founder and president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). All three were profoundly affected by what their Commission learned.

The Commission inspected 1836 businesses and interviewed 222 witnesses. The City of New York enacted over 30 new fire and occupational safety laws, in part due to the Commission's work.

The fire ushered in "the golden era of remedial factory legislation," greatly expanding occupational safety, fire safety, and worker's rights. In many ways, the Triangle Fire could be considered one of the progenitors of much of Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" legislation.

One witness to the fire, Frances Perkins of the New York Consumer's League, became FDR's Secretary of Labor (and was the first female Cabinet member, as well as the first woman in the presidential line of succession). Years after the fire, Perkins said in an interview that the fire sharpened her focus on labor issues.

The last known survivor of the Triangle Fire, Rose Freedman, died on February 22, 2001, at age 107; she was a lifelong crusader for worker safety.

This post is dedicated to the memory of
Becky Reines and her 145 coworkers who

perished in the Triangle Fire.

1 comment:

  1. I am trying to locate relatives of Ms. Beckie Reines, the Triangle fire victim to whom this post is dedicated. I have Reines ancestors and am in touch with Reines family members around the world. We are eager to learn whether we are related to Ms. Beckie Reines. Please contact me if you have any additional information on Beckie Reines or other Reines relatives at
    Lastly, I am eager to know what prompted the person responsible for this wonderful posting to place it on the web. It is a wonderful memorial. Thank you.

    Rand H. Fishbein, Ph.D.