US Labor History 1911
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company occupied the top three floors — the eight, ninth and tenth — of the Asch Building, a fireproof structure on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Manhattan. Its largely female, largely Jewish and Italian immigrant workers had gone on strike in 1909, a strike that had ended inconclusively, with the employees still denied union rights.
At 4:45 p.m. on Saturday March 25, 1911, as the factory was closing, a fire started in a bin full of material on the eighth floor. The executive offices on the tenth floor were called, but no one warned the workers on the ninth floor, where tables with sewing machines lined the floor from almost one end to the other. The only notice they received was when the flames leapt from the eighth floor window to the ninth.
Panic broke out on all floors of the factory: though a consultant had recommended it, no fire drills had ever been held, something essential in a workplace where so many languages were spoken, and where instructions during an actual fire would likely not be understood.
Some workers were able to escape in the elevators, whose heroic operators continued to run them as long as possible during the fire, while many on the tenth floor were able to climb the stairs to the roof, where people in neighboring buildings, which were higher than the Asch Building, lowered ladders to them so they could escape.
But on the ninth floor only one stairway exit was open. It was company policy to force all employees to leave through one exit so their bags could be checked for pilferage. As a result, everyone trying to leave through the Washington Place exit found themselves locked in. And the flames, with thousands of pounds of material to feed on, quickly turned the factory into an inferno.
Unable to make it to or through the doors, with the flames rapidly spreading, workers climbed onto the windowsills and jumped. Firemen were on the scene within a minutes, but the nets they put up were useless: the bodies simply tore the nets from their hands. So many jumped that the police held people back from exiting the building for fear that they'd be crushed by the falling bodies.
Spectators below viewed heart-rending scenes: one young woman, before throwing herself from the window, turned over her purse and emptied it of its contents; a young man helped two women out of the window, kissed a third before dropping her, and then went through the window himself; two women leapt together, holding hands ...
Some had made it to the fire escape. But when the building was constructed it was noted that the fire escape didn’t reach the ground floor, a flaw that was supposed to be fixed but never was. As the workers tried to make their way down a traffic jam occurred when shutters blocked the way. The fire escape collapsed, some of those on it dying impaled on spikes in the courtyard below.
Firemen did the best they could to rescue people within the building, and put up their ladders to reach the victims. But the ladders were only long enough to each the seventh floor; some died while trying to catch the ladder on their way down.
The worst of the fire lasted only eighteen minutes, and it was under control within a half-hour. The fireproof walls and floors had withstood the fire. 146 workers died. Six were never identified.
New York being New York, the next day people were out at the scene of the fire hawking souvenirs of the fire. And when the bodies were laid out for identification thousands of people lined up to view them, until the police chased those who were there simply as gawkers. Among those in the line were over forty pickpockets.
New York being New York, the working class mobilized to demonstrate support for the victims and their families and to protest the conditions that caused the fire. Emotional meetings were held where Socialists like Morris Hillquit and the Yiddish Daily Forward’s editor Abraham Cahan addressed the crowd. At a meeting on March 29 people fainted during the moment of silence called for by Jewish socialist activist Jacob Panken.
And on April 5, in a torrential downpour, several hundred thousand people lined the streets and marched in memory of the victims of the fire.
The aftermath of the fire was bitter. The owners of the Triangle Company, who had already profited through insurance payments for previous fires, received about $200,000 in insurance payments, more than $64,000 more than any actual loss. And when finally put on trial in December for the locking of the doors, a violation of workplace law, they were acquitted after the jury deliberated for less than two hours. One of the jurors explained his vote, saying: “It seems to me to have been an act of the Almighty ... I paid great attention to the witnesses while they were on the stand. I think the girls who worked there were not as intelligent as those in other walks of life ...”
The fire so touched the public and the politicians that it resulted in a rash of investigations and legislation relating not only to safety, but also to the limiting of working hours for women and children, the abolition of night shifts for these two groups, and the strengthening of the State’s Department of Labor.
But the Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld — the “poet laureate of the slum” — expressed widespread feeling when he wrote in the aftermath of the fire:
“Damned be the rich!
Damned be the system!
Damned be the world!”