The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: One Hundred Years Later

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: One Hundred Years Later

On March 25, 1911 six hundred workers were ending their day at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on the top floors of the 10-story Asch Building located on Washington Square East in Manhattan.

Shortly before 4:45 p.m. fire broke out in wooden scrap boxes under the cutting tables. Workers rushed to fill fire buckets with water to fight the flames, but found the water barrels partially empty. Within minutes fabric hanging on wires above the cutting tables had burst into flames, and the conflagration had spread out of control.

Wooden tables and chairs, floors soaked in oil from the sewing machines and bundles of cloth provided tender for the flames and the factory was soon engulfed.

This was not the first fire that the factory owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, had experienced in their garment factories. There was actually a history of such events. The Triangle factory had burned twice in 1902, and a sister factory, the Diamond Waist Co., had burned in 1907 and 1910. Only 4 months earlier another fire at the Wolf Muslin Under garment factory in Newark had claimed 26 lives. However, New York and most of America left workplaces unregulated and dangerous.

The cost of the lack of safety rules soon became apparent on the upper floors of the Asch Building.

Workers sought safety but found none. The ten-story building had two stairways, and an exterior fire escape, as well as elevators, but they were soon shown to be inadequate and inaccessible.

The Washington Place stairwell had been locked to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks. Desperate workers pushed against it until the door bent but were unable to get to the stairway to escape.

The exterior fire escape was weak and only 17.5 inches wide, and was insufficient to handle the press of humanity. It collapsed under the weight of evacuees, sending workers to their death in the courtyard below. In any case it ended at the second floor and emptied into a closed courtyard with no means of exit.

The elevator was soon filled beyond capacity as workers crowded into the tiny space. Some workers tried to climb down the elevator cables, only to fall to their deaths on the roof of the elevator, which soon buckled from the weight of bodies. The elevators themselves soon became inoperable as the tracks warped under the intense heat.

Escape from the Green Street stairwell also proved impossible. It was made of flammable wood and was only 33 inches wide, barely enough for single file exit. It was soon packed with panicked workers, and then it also burst into flames, sealing the upper floors.

Fire Department pumpers arrived soon after the fire broke out, but proved to be of no use. The pumpers could not reach the upper floors where the fire was located, and their ladder was too short to help the trapped workers.

Desperate firemen broke out their safety nets hoping to safely catch those who were jumping, but the momentum of the fall from the top stories carried workers through the nets. The force of the fall was so great that not only were the nets shredded but also the metal grates in the sidewalk soon gave way as bodies crashed though the steel.

The street was soon filed with thousands of horrified spectators who cried out and watched in horror, as young couples would kiss for the last time before jumping from the top floors to their death. Eventually one hundred and forty six people died that day in the fire. Some were burned so badly that their bodies could not be identified until 2011.

The tragedy sparked anger and outrage as the sordid story of the unsafe working conditions came to light. On April 15, 1911 more than 75,000 mourners marched to remember the dead and urge improved safety conditions.

However, the initial reaction of the courts to the events and its causes soon proved more outrage.

Shortly after the fire, Harris and Blanck, the owners of the factory, were indicted for multiple counts of manslaughter. However, on December 15, 1911, an all male jury, in a verdict that provoked incredulity and sparked anger, acquitted them.

The families of the deceased victims sought redress in the civil courts, since they had no other recourse. At the time New York had no employers’ liability or workers’ compensation law. The legislature had passed a workers’ compensation act in 1910, but the courts had declared it unconstitutional, as a violation of substantive due process. Workers were left unprotected from the effects of work place injuries.

The civil suits met with limited success, as the claims were met with defenses such as contributory negligence and fellow employee doctrine. Families of the victims were awarded about $75.00 a piece in damages, or about 3 months wages. The legal remedies were shown to be inadequate for the victims.

Blanck and Harris fared better for their property losses as they received $60,000.00 from their insurance companies.

Within days of the fire Blanck and Harris were back in business at a new location. They did not appear to show much remorse for the loss of so many lives, since before the year was out an inspection of the new factory revealed the same fire hazards that had caused the deaths at Triangle. The new location lacked fire escapes and had inadequate exits. Blanck was charged and fined $20.00 but the Judge apologized for having to take such a harsh step. Several months latter another inspection showed hazards had not been corrected and found the factory floor to be piled six feet deep with flammable cloth. Blanck was given a warning, but no fine.

The public responded to the fire and legal fiasco by demanding action. New York responded by establishing the New York City Committee on Public Safety. Frances Perkins, who went on to become the Secretary of Labor under Franklyn D. Roosevelt, and who stood in the crowd outside the building watching the tragedy unfold, was appointed to head the Committee. New York State established the New York Factory Investigation Commission, headed by Robert Wagner.

The recommendations of the two groups spurred a wave of safety regulations that made New York a national model for occupational safety. Some 36 laws were passed to improve work place safety. These ranged from such basic rules as having exit doors open outward, placement of lighted exit signs and fire equipment in work places to a complete reorganization of the states occupational safety laws, and improvements in working conditions.

New York adopted a workers’ compensation law providing a prompt remedy for lost wages and health benefits for injured workers that soon became a model for other states and the federal government.

The tragedy also inspired the public to engage in a review of how to avoid such catastrophes resulting in the organization of the American Society of Safety Engineers on October 14, 1911.

Frances Perkins looked back on the events of March 25, 1911 and explained that the day of the fire was “the day the New Deal began.”

To learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and tragedy, see Remembering The Triangle Factory Fire: 100 Years Later.

   Stephen C. Embry, Attorney, Embry & Neusner

For more information about LexisNexis products and solutions connect with us through our corporate site.