100 years ago today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
caught fire. The Factory occupied the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of what is now the Brown Building in the Village
On March 25, 1911
, 146 individuals, mostly women of Italian and European Jewish descent, died, resulting in the worst workplace disaster in American history till September 11, 2001.
It was remarkably warm that Saturday, something like last Friday’s weather. At approximately 4:40 p.m., a tossed cigarette or maybe a rogue spark started a fire on the 8th floor. The piles of fabric stacked all about acted like perfectly arranged kindling. Immediately the 8th floor notified the head office on the 10th floor, but the 10th floor operator never notified the 9th. The 8th and 10th floors evacuated.
What came next is horrible. The owners of Triangle—Max Blanck and Isaac Harris—had elected not to install sprinklers in the factory. They had, though, taken out extra fire insurance. Quickly, the number of exits from the 9th floor dwindled to one. Flames blocked one exit, a locked door made egress impossible at the second. The third led to an impossibly small fire escape that led down into an airshaft. Still, many of the women tried this. When the weight became too much, the fire escape pulled free of the brick. The workers fell seven flights before hitting a 2nd floor skylight that sat above an iron picket fence.
Many of the workers that couldn’t reach that non-exit jumped from the front windows. Observers on the street mistook this for falling clothing, the owners trying to save their best stock. There are photographs of women’s bodies crumpled on the sidewalk like broken and ash-dusted flowers. In the photos, the living observers standing about all look up, anticipating more.
On April 5, 1911, 100,000 marched in the funeral procession for the 146. It’s said that 300,000 came to observe, meaning that, given the population then, 1 in 10 New Yorkers participated. These are staggering numbers that reflect a level of involvement that should put us all to shame. A direct line from this disaster can be drawn to the rise of the progressive movement in New York and eventually the New Deal.
Recently, HBO aired a documentary entitled Triangle: Remembering the Fire
. I would urge everyone to watch this or at least do some reading on the disaster (this book would be a great place to start: The New York City Triangle Factory Fire
). At the very least, think on these events today, the centennial.