Essay: The Triangle Factory Fire and Labor’s Legacy

Essay: The Triangle Factory Fire and Labor’s Legacy

Originally published by Firebrand Progressives

 

It was quitting time when someone noticed the fire in a scrap bin on Saturday, March 25th, 1911. Inside the Triangle Waist Company factory, eight stories above New York’s Greenwich Village, hundreds were preparing to leave work for the day, but unbeknownst to most people in the factory, the fire was growing.

A few workers rushed to douse the flames with pails of water, but it had grown too big. The entire floor began filling with blinding smoke. Workers raced to grab fire hoses, but the hoses had rotted and the valves had rusted shut. No water came out.

Occupying the top three floors of the Asch Building, the Triangle Waist factory was one of the largest makers of shirtwaists—a women’s blouse with a tight waist and puffy sleeves popular in the 1900s. Most of the factory’s workers were immigrant women, some as young as 13. They worked in hot, cramped quarters earning about $6 a week, working 12 or more hours a day, often six or seven days a week.

Once the fire sparked, it spread quickly to other areas of the building, finding constant sources of new fuel from the tissue paper patterns, wooden tables and hundreds of pounds of cotton scraps in the factory.

With flames growing and smoke continuing to fill the eighth floor, one worker attempted to call the upper two floors of the building to warn them of the fire, but she was only able to alert workers on the tenth floor. Ninth-floor workers had no way of knowing a fire was raging out of control just one floor beneath them.
Workers from the tenth floor joined workers from the eighth floor in an attempt to flee the building, many rushing to one of the four elevators, but only one elevator was in working order. It was designed to carry around a dozen people, but panicked workers crowded the elevator, stuffing it past capacity. Four groups made it to safety, but then, as the elevator shaft filled with smoke and flames, the elevator stopped working, causing many to plunge down the elevator shaft to their deaths.

The remaining workers, trapped by the fire and thick smoke, crawled along the floors searching for a way out. Reaching the building’s two stairways, they found the doors locked, a company policy to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks from work.

The fire department was alerted to the fire within minutes, but when they arrived on scene and raised their ladders, they found they only reached the sixth floor, and their hoses barely reached the top floors.

Back inside the building, workers climbed out windows to the building’s only fire escape. It was extremely narrow and very few workers reached safety before the escape collapsed, killing many of the workers who were on it at the time. Without working elevators, no access to the stairway, and no fire escape ladders, those still in the building were running out of ways to escape. Some workers managed to gain access to the roof where they climbed to the safety of nearby buildings. Scores of others were not as lucky.

With the fire spreading and plumes of smoke robbing those still in the building of oxygen, many workers were soon confronted with a difficult decision: Stay in the burning building, or leap out the windows. On the street below, firefighters and onlookers watched as several workers leapt to their deaths. Firefighters deployed nets, but too many women were jumping at once and the nets ripped.

Over the next 20 to 30 minutes, firefighters fought the blaze, managing to get it under control, but by then, 146 were dead. Fifty had burned to death or suffocated from the smoke, many of those bodies recovered in the locked stairwells where they’d been buried by debris. Thirty-six died in the elevator shaft. Fifty-eight others died on the sidewalks below the Asch Building. In the days that followed, two more died in the hospital as a result of injuries. The bodies of the deceased were transported to an East River pier where thousands of friends and relatives came to identify the remains.

It is believed the fire in the scrap bin was started by a cigarette butt igniting cotton scraps. While smoking may have been the cause of the fire, the lack of proper safety measures in the factory contributed to the high number of casualties. Much of the blame landed on the factory’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who had been suspects in two other suspicious fires. Blanck and Harris were men of great wealth and many accused them of bribing police and politicians to look the other way. Blanck and Harris were also well-known to labor leaders for their anti-worker policies. The men were accused of manslaughter, but despite detailed evidence and testimony from over a hundred witnesses, they were not convicted.

After the fire, union leaders organized a march along New York’s Fifth Avenue to protest unsafe working conditions. The march was attended by 80,000 people. A spotlight had been placed on the hazardous conditions ubiquitous in America’s factories at the time. In the wake of this tragedy, New York City passed a large number of new fire, safety and building codes. Other cities around the country followed their example.

Today, because of these regulations, all American workers have the legal right to a safe workplace. Over the years, labor leaders have also secured other rights for workers, things like fair wages and overtime pay for any work exceeding 40 hours per week. Laws also exist to prevent children from being exploited by employers.

On this, the anniversary of the Triangle factory fire, it is important to take a moment to remember these young workers who died simply because they went to work that Saturday. Thanks to them, and to activists, labor leaders, unions, and lawmakers, all of us are safer in our workplaces. We have also been granted better pay, overtime, weekends, and more. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who lost their lives in the Triangle factory fire, and we can repay them a little by never forgetting how and why we have these rights.