About the Triangle Fire
Detail, History of the Needlecraft Industry (1938), by Ernest Feeney, High School of Fashion and Industry.
A mural commissioned by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGW).
Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same. Survivors recounted the horrors they had to endure, but passers-by and reporters also told stories of pain and terror they had witnessed. The images of death were seared deeply in their mind's eyes.
Many of the Triangle factory workers were women, some as young as 15 years old. They were, for the most part, recent Italian and European Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States with their families to seek a better life. Instead, they faced lives of grinding poverty and horrifying working conditions. As recent immigrants struggling with a new language and culture, the working poor were ready victims for the factory owners. For these workers, speaking out frequently would end with the loss of desperately needed jobs, a prospect that forced them to endure personal indignities and severe exploitation. Some turned to labor unions to speak for them; many more struggled alone. The Triangle Factory was a non-union shop although some of its workers had joined the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.
New York City, with its tenements and loft factories, had witnessed a growing concern for issues of health and safety in the early years of the 20th century. Groups such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and the Womens' Trade Union League (WTUL) fought for better working conditions and protective legislation. Fire inspections and precautions were woefully inadequate at the time. The Triangle Fire tragically illustrated these inadequacies. Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were locked. For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno. Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters' ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive.
In the weeks that followed, the grieving city identified the dead, sorted out their belongings, and reeled in numbed grief at the atrocity that could have been averted with a few precautions. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union proposed an official day of mourning. The grief-stricken city gathered in churches, synagogues, and finally, in the streets.
Protesting voices arose, bewildered and angry at the lack of concern and the greed that had made this possible. The people demanded restitution, justice, and action that would safeguard the vulnerable and the oppressed. Outraged cries calling for action to improve the unsafe conditions in workshops could be heard from every quarter, from the mainstream conservative to the progressive and union press. Workers flocked to union quarters to offer testimonies, support mobilization, and demand that Triangle owners Harris and Blanck be brought to trial. The role that strong unions could have in helping prevent such tragedies became clear. Workers organized in powerful unions would be more conscious of their rights and better able to obtain safe working conditions.
Shortly after the fire, the Executive Board of the Ladies' Waist and Dress Makers' Union, Local No. 25 of the ILGWU, the local to which some of the Triangle factory workers belonged, met to plan relief work for the survivors and the families of the victims. Soon several progressive organizations came forward to help with the relief effort. Representatives from the Women's Trade Union League, the Workmen's Circle (Arbeiter Ring), the Jewish Daily Forward, and the United Hebrew Trades formed the Joint Relief Committee, which, over the course of the next months, allotted lump sums, often to be remitted abroad, to Russia or Italy. In addition, its Executive Committee distributed weekly pensions, supervised and cared for the young workers and children placed in institutions of various kinds, and secured work and proper living arrangements for the workers after they recuperated from their injuries.
The Joint Relief Committee worked together with the American Red Cross, which also collected funds from the general public. Estimates indicate that the Joint Relief Committee alone admnistered about $30,000.
Local 25 of the ILGWU organized a rally against the unsafe working conditions that led to the disaster. Meanwhile the Women's Trade Union League led a campaign to investigate such conditions among Triangle workers, to collect testimonies, and to promote an investigation. Within a month of the fire the governor of New York State appointed the Factory Investigating Commission. For five years, this commission conducted a series of statewide hearings that resulted in the passage of important factory safety legislation. Frances Perkins, later to become Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, watched the Asch Building burn, an event that influenced her decision to become a lifelong advocate for workers. Perkins assisted in the factory investigation from her position as executive secretary of the New York Committee on Safety.
Labor and management in the garment trades cooperated in the ongoing work of the Joint Board of Sanitary Control to set and maintain standards of sanitation in the workplace. This board, consisting of representatives from the clothing industry and from the union, was established a year prior to the Triangle Fire in the aftermath of the 1910 Cloakmakers' Strike. It conducted its own investigations and continued to inspect and monitor health and safety conditions. It set sanitary standards exceeding the legal requirements and, due to the fact that the manufacturers' association and the union had jointly approved the standards, was able to enforce those standards in the shops that it monitored.
The ILGWU, in concert with others in the labor movement and progressive organizations, would continue a long and difficult battle to achieve the right of workers to safe, decent working conditions. The event, as it faded from immediate public outrage, was not forgotten nor was it isolated in the course of the history of American workers. It did, however, point out the many serious problems facing factory workers and paved the way for attempts at remedies through protective legislation. In the immediate years following the fire, a flurry of legislation perfected old laws or introduced new ones, which somewhat improved working conditions.
Eight months after the fire a jury acquitted Blanck and Harris, the factory owners, of any wrong doing. The task of the jurors had been to determine whether the owners knew that the doors were locked at the time of the fire. Customarily, the only way out for workers at quitting time was through an opening on the Green Street side, where all pocketbooks were inspected to prevent stealing. Worker after worker testified to their inability to open the doors to their only viable escape route the stairs to the Washington Place exit, because the Green Street side stairs were completely engulfed by fire. More testimony supported this fact. Yet the brilliant defense attorney Max Steuer planted enough doubt in the jurors' minds to win a not-guilty verdict. Grieving families and much of the public felt that justice had not been done. "Justice!" they cried. "Where is justice?"
Twenty-three individual civil suits were brought against the owners of the Asch building. On March 11, 1913, three years after the fire, Harris and Blanck settled. They paid $75 per life lost.
The nation learned of the horrible fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company through the eyewitness account of a United Press reporter who happened to be in Washington Square on March 25, 1911. He phoned in details while watching the tragedy unfold. At the other end of the telephone, young Roy Howard telegraphed Shepherd's story to the nation's newspapers.
"Eyewitness at the Triangle" by William G. Shephard
I was walking through Washington Square when a puff of smoke issuing from the factory building caught my eye. I reached the building before the alarm was turned in. I saw every feature of the tragedy visible from outside the building. I learned a new sound--a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.
Thuddead, thuddead, thuddead, thuddead. Sixty-two thuddeads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet.
The first ten thuddeads shocked me. I looked upsaw that there were scores
of girls at the windows. The flames from
the floor below were beating in their faces. Somehow I knew that they, too, must come down, and something within mesomething that I didn't know was theresteeled me.
I even watched one girl falling. Waving her arms, trying to keep her body upright until the very instant she struck the sidewalk, she was trying to balance herself. Then came the thud--then a silent, unmoving pile of clothing and twisted, broken limbs.
As I reached the scene of the fire, a cloud of smoke hung over the building. . . . I looked up to the seventh floor. There was a living picture in each windowfour screaming heads of girls waving their arms.
"Call the firemen," they screamedscores of them. "Get a ladder," cried others. They were all as alive and whole and sound as were we who stood on the sidewalk. I couldn't help thinking of that. We cried to them not to jump. We heard the siren of a fire engine in the distance. The other sirens sounded from several directions.
"Here they come," we yelled. "Don't jump; stay there."
One girl climbed onto the window sash. Those behind her tried to hold her back. Then she dropped into space. I didn't notice whether those above watched her drop because I had turned away. Then came that first thud. I looked up, another girl was climbing onto the window sill; others were crowding behind her. She dropped. I watched her fall, and again the dreadful sound. Two windows away two girls were climbing onto the sill; they were fighting each other and crowding for air. Behind them I saw many screaming heads. They fell almost together, but I heard two distinct thuds. Then the flames burst out through the windows on the floor below them, and curled up into their faces.
The firemen began to raise a ladder. Others took out a life net and, while they were rushing to the sidewalk with it, two more girls shot down. The firemen held it under them; the bodies broke it; the grotesque simile of a dog jumping through a hoop struck me. Before they could move the net another girl's body flashed through it. The thuds were just as loud, it seemed, as if there had been no net there. It seemed to me that the thuds were so loud that they might have been heard all over the city.
I had counted ten. Then my dulled senses began to work automatically. I noticed things that it had not occurred to me before to notice. Little details that the first shock had blinded me to. I looked up to see whether those above watched those who fell. I noticed that they did; they watched them every inch of the way down and probably heard the roaring thuds that we heard.
As I looked up I saw a love affair in the midst of all the horror. A young man helped a girl to the window sill. Then he held her out, deliberately away from the building and let her drop. He seemed cool and calculating. He held out a second girl the same way and let her drop. Then he held out a third girl who did not resist. I noticed that. They were as unresisting as if her were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity. Undoubtedly he saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames, and his was only a terrible chivalry.
Then came the love amid the flames. He brought another girl to the window. Those of us who were looking saw her put her arms about him and kiss him. Then he held her out into space and dropped her. But quick as a flash he was on the window sill himself. His coat fluttered upwardthe air filled his trouser legs. I could see that he wore tan shoes and hose. His hat remained on his head.
Thuddead, thuddeadtogether they went into eternity. I saw his face before they covered it. You could see in it that he was a real man. He had done his best.
We found out later that, in the room in which he stood, many girls were being burned to death by the flames and were screaming in an inferno of flame and heat. He chose the easiest way and was brave enough to even help the girl he loved to a quicker death, after she had given him a goodbye kiss. He leaped with an energy as if to arrive first in that mysterious land of eternity, but her thuddead came first. The firemen raised the longest ladder. It reached only to the sixth floor. I saw the last girl jump at it and miss it. And then the faces disappeared from the window. But now the crowd was enormous, though all this had occurred in less than seven minutes, the start of the fire and the thuds and deaths.
I heard screams around the corner and hurried there. What I had seen before was not so terrible as what had followed. Up in the [ninth] floor girls were burning to death before our very eyes. They were jammed in the windows. No one was lucky enough to be able to jump, it seemed. But, one by one, the jams broke. Down came the bodies in a shower, burning, smokingflaming bodies, with disheveled hair trailing upward. They had fought each other to die by jumping instead of by fire.
The whole, sound, unharmed girls who had jumped on the other side of the building had tried to fall feet down. But these fire torches, suffering ones, fell inertly, only intent that death should come to them on the sidewalk instead of in the furnace behind them.
On the sidewalk lay heaps of broken bodies. A policeman later went about with tags, which he fastened with wires to the wrists of the dead girls, numbering each with a lead pencil, and I saw him fasten tag no. 54 to the wrist of a girl who wore an engagement ring. A fireman who came downstairs from the building told me that there were at least fifty bodies in the big room on the seventh floor. Another fireman told me that more girls had jumped down an air shaft in the rear of the building. I went back there, into the narrow court, and saw a heap of dead girls. . . .
The floods of water from the firemen's hose that ran into the gutter were actually stained red with blood. I looked upon the heap of dead bodies and I remembered these girls were the shirtwaist makers. I remembered their great strike of last year in which these same girls had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies were the answer.
"Eyewitness at the Triangle" by William G. Shephard. From Leon Stein, ed., Out of the Sweatshop: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy (New York: Quadrangle/New Times Book Company, 1977). Orig. published in the Milwaukee Journal, March 27, 1911.
A Photo Essay on the Triangle Fire
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