On July 22, 1913, the 110-125 women working in the Binghamton Clothing Company, a former cigar company in Bingham, NY, were sweating through their clothes. It was a hot day, and windows were propped open throughout the factory. The cross-breeze was making the unbearable heat a little more livable.
Lunch time came and went, and it kept getting hotter in the factory. Young women were sneaking into the breezy stairwell for a smoke and some reprieve from the heat. It just kept getting hotter. Around 1pm, a worker noticed it was much hotter inside than outside. An hour later, she noticed smoke rising up from the stairwell.
At lunch, an employee was smoking in the stairwell, and dropped it down to the second floor landing. The landing was full of flammable, plush material. The fuel, along with the ventilation from the windows, and the ignition source (the cigarette) caused a massive fire that spread quickly.
At 2:30pm, Reed Freeman, the owner of the building, raised the alarm and began pouring buckets of water on the fire. However, most of the women sat. They didn’t move from their machines. Why? The fire drills the women had been doing used a gradual alarm that changed for every stage of the fire drill, but this alarm was continuous. Because it wasn’t recognizable, it went ignored by many.
Nellie Connor, who was known as the “mother” of the workers, helped guide women out of the building. She worked for the company for 31 years. She went back in to help more, but the building collapsed within 20 minutes of the alarm sounding.
Sidney Dimmock, a 15-year foreman at the company, carried two women out of the building and went in for more. He was also inside the building when it collapsed.
Fire crews in Bingham were at another fire when they got the call for the factory fire. By the time they arrived, the fire was out of control. They couldn’t enter the building or attempt rescue. They attempted to keep the fire away from the other buildings, but the water pressure was too low due to drought.
By 4pm, the property was destroyed and thirty-one women died.
After the fire, witnesses took the stand to determine who was at fault for the tragedy. The owner said that materials were always picked up and put away at night. By code, flammable waste needed to be put in fireproof receptacles and removed 2+ times a day. However, a witness said that flammable materials, cuttings, and rubbish were all over the floor.
The staircase was not fireproof and acted like a chimney, shooting smoke and fire into the air. At the time of the fire, the State Factory Investigating Commission drafted a bill to make staircases fireproof, but it hadn’t been voted on yet.
This fire in combination with other major fires of the time led to three code changes in Building Exit Code (NFPA 101-T) 1927.
1. Changes in construction for stairways and fire escapes.
2. Code for fire drills in various occupancies.
3. Construction and arrangements for exits in factories.
The reports were adopted by NFPA and published as “Outside Stairs for Fire Exits” in 1916 and “Safeguarding Factory Workers from Fire” in 1918.