Fires in History | Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

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Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Was it arson? Cigarettes? Sewing machine malfunction? In 1911, 500 workers were locked up and left to die when a fire sparked in a garment factory. To this day, the debate rages on. What ignited the fire?

The Scene

On March 25, 1911, the 500 workers streaming into the Manhattan garments factory never expected their lives to change forever. Much like today, immigrants flocked to the U.S. to find a better life. They worked hard to build the American dream and send money home to their families.  Of the 500 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, many were immigrants between the ages of 16 and 23. Some were as young as 14, working 50+ hours for $12 a week. They were mistreated and put into a dangerous situation.

The garment factory was located on the 8, 9, and 10 floors of what is now known as the Brown Building on New York University's campus. The means of egress were locked during the day to prevent theft, the fire escape only went to the second floor, and the floor was piled with hundreds of pounds of fabric scraps. It was a death trap. And proved to be when 146 workers were killed when a fire sparked and grew out of control, fueled by fabric scraps and sewing machine oil.

The Fire

At 4:40pm, just 20 minutes before the end of the day, a fire sparked in a fabric bin next to one of the cutters on the 8th floor. At 4:45pm, a passerbyer saw smoke coming from a window and pulled the manual fire alarm, alerting the fire department. There was no smoke alarm in the building, so a bookkeeper called to the 10th floor to warn employees. The 9th floor employees were left on their own.

When firefighters arrived, their ladders only reached the 6th floor. People fell from the upper levels, trying to reach the ladders, just to meet their death on the sidewalk below. William Gunn Shepard, a reporter at the scene that day, said, "I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture - the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk."

The garment workers were left on their own to escape. The 9th floor had several exits: two freight elevators, a fire escape, and two set of stairs. One set of stairs was blocked by boxes and scraps. The 9th floor workers crammed into the elevators, remaining stairwell, and fire escape. The stairwell helped many, including the two owners and their children, escape to the roof. This stairwell became unusable within 3 minutes as people crammed into it.

The freight elevators helped even more escape. The two elevator operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo, went up and down 3 times to help people escape, but eventually, the metal began to warp and the workers pried open the elevator doors and jumped onto the elevator car, warping it further, and making it unusable.

Others tried to escape using the fire escape, but it quickly warped and pulled from the building, causing 20 people to fall 100 feet to their deaths. The NFPA said, "fire escapes contributed to the principal elements of tragedy to all fires where panic resulted. Iron is quickly heated and expansion bolts, stays, and fastenings soon pull the frame loose so that the weight of a single body may precipitate it into a street or alley."

Many were trapped because doors were locked from the outside, trapping workers in. The owners locked the doors every day to prevent early departures and theft. The foreman holding the key escaped early into the fire with the key, leaving the workers trapped.

The Aftermath

In the end, 146 people died - 123 women and 23 men. They died from fire, smoke inhalation, and jumping from the building to escape. The Fire Marshall believed that the fire ignited from a discarded cigarette in the fabric scrap bin. However, independent researchers had differing opinions. The New York Times believed that the fire started from the engines of the sewing machines, fueled by an open bucket of oil (used for lubricating the sewing machines). Colliers and The Insurance Monitor both concluded it was arson. Arson was common in the garment industry. As fashions phased out, owners in garment factories would start a fire and collect insurance money as their business profits died out. The owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, of this business had 4 suspicious fires in past businesses and the shirtwaist was going out of fashion.

Blanck and Harris were indicated on charges of 1st and 2nd degree manslaughter. However, the defense team couldn't prove that the owners knew that the doors were locked, so they were acquitted. In 1913, there was a civil trial and the men were found guilty of wrongful death. They were ordered to pay $75 per victim. However, the insurance company gave them $60,000, so they ended up making money off the fire. In a later business, Blanck was arrested for locking employees in his factory. He was fined $20.

According to CNN, the triangle shirtwaist factory employees had never had a fire drill. The ASCH building had no fire alarms or sprinklers. Fabric was left all over the factory, fueling the fire. The building was all wood, and the floor was slick with sewing machine oil. Boxes were blocking exits. There was no third interior stairwell, as required by New York City building code. Stairwells opened inward instead of outward. In New York, it was required to have the doors open outward, "if practical." However, the architect did not find it practical because the stairs were close to the door. Lastly, the sewing machines were too close together, making it difficult to move.

Francis Perkins, an eyewitness, saw a woman jump from the building and die right in front of her. She was so inspired to make sure that never happened again that she formed the New York Committee on Safety. She went to an NFPA meeting and spoke about the social and human cost of fire. She said, "We lost not only those workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, we lost their valuable services to society as economic factors...It is because that social and human loss is to the community that this problem of fire deserves the closest attention of all people who are interested in the general progress and welfare of humanity...Nothing is so important as human health and happiness....and if it costs dollars and cents to procure...then we must pay...and if it reduces profits we must reduce those profits...You who are more or less technical...must help us by giving...the correct information...which we will be only too glad to use." This speech helped the NFPA come up with the Life Safety Committee.


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