The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
On Saturday March 25, 1911 at about 4:40 pm a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. In the end, 146 of the 500 garment workers died. Most were Jewish and Italian immigrant women and children. The oldest victim was 43 and the two youngest were 14 years old. Many died not from the fire, or even smoke inhalation but from blunt force injuries from jumping from the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the building.
This tragedy brought to light the working conditions of especially of women and immigrants. America was still considered the place to come to in order to succeed in life and get away from various government laws in other countries. Many immigrant families soon learned that it was not what they expected and struggled to provide the basic needs to their families. Many of the wealthy factory owners knew this and it was quite common for employees to be taken advantage of by working extremely long hours for little pay. In 1909 there had been a walk out of about 400 employees from Triangle and other factories because of work place conditions. This was led by the Women's Trade Union League. Violence and threats perpetrated by employers had nearly forced this strike to solve nothing. Employees were intimidated to return to work. They continued to work 9 hour days Monday thru Friday and 7 hours on Saturdays for about 7-12 dollars a week.
The fire marshal quickly came to believe that the fire had started in a trash can by a match or a cigarette that had not been extinguished. Many speculated that the heat from the sewing machine engines could have been responsible also. There were a lot of scraps of material and thread throughout which made it very flammable. During this time smoke alarms as we know them today were not common. In fact, the fire alarm in this case was pulled from the outside of the building by people who had walked by and saw the smoke. By this time i was likely that the fire was already beyond control. Even still this tragedy could have been prevented. The fire started on the 8th floor of the building (the factory occupied the 8th, 9th and 10th floors). Those on the 10th floor, where the owners were, was warned of the fire by phone but there was no way to warn tho on the 9th floor. It was stated by a survivor that their warning, came as they literally saw the fire and by then it was too late. Even without smoke alarms or proper warnings there could have been many less deaths than there was. The biggest issue that came to light was that the employees were not able to escape properly due to the fact that the exits had been locked. It was learned later that this was a common practice in factories. Owners had ordered the exits locked to prevent unauthorized breaks as well as to prevent employee theft. Each night as they were leaving employees were searched to ensure they were not taking anything with them. Amid the panic of the fire itself, and the fact that traditional exits remained locked, first employees attempted the fire escape. They crowded themselves onto the fire escape. Soon the weight of all of crowded caused the fire escape to buckle and collapse, causing 20 people to fall to their deaths. Some people made their way to the roof, and at some point the elevators began working but it too buckled under the pressure of the fire and weight. There was a stairwell but it was said that the foreman who held that key had escaped early. To add to all of this, once the firefighters arrived it was learned that their ladders would not reach beyond the 6th floor of the building.
Due to public outrage more than likely the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were indicted on 1st and 2nd degree manslaughter charges in April of 1911. The trial began in December of that year. The defense attorneys were able to make it appear that witnesses for the prosecution had memorized their testimony answers and it shed doubt on their stories. The prosecution could not prove that the owners knew that the exit doors remained locked during the time of the fire. Defense attorneys were also able to show that the traditional policy was that the owners of the building would subcontract the factory and supposedly never knew what people were paid, how many employees there were or in general the rules and regulations made. That seems unlikely but apparently the jury believed it. It is believed that this largely played a role in the men being acquitted.
In 1913 a civil suit was filed and Blanck and Harris did lose that case. The compensation amount came to about $75 per deceased person, a large sum at the time. However, it was later learned that the owners had received insurance benefits that when divided and figured came to about $400 per victim so in essence they were not damaged significantly. Also in 1913 Blanck was arrested and fined $20 for once again locking factory doors during work hours.
After the fire at The Triangle factory New York Legislature formed the Factory Investigating Commission to look at conditions of the many factories. They looked specifically at fire prevention and unsanitary conditions that would spread disease. More than 200 factories were found as having issues similar to Triangle that could have caused the same tragedy. Between 1911 and 1913 over 60 new laws were recommended that including having things like better building access, fireproofing requirements, fire extinguishers, and alarm and sprinkler systems. They also looked into having betters foods and lavatory conditions as well as limiting the number of hours of work.
Today the building, The Asch Building, has been marked as a historical landmark, although it is a scar of tragedy in history. There have been plans to make a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives on March 25, 1911. Six victims remained unidentified until February of 2011. They had been buried together in 1911.