Today in 1911, the largest industrial disaster in the history of New York City occurred. Known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, it brought to broad public attention the dangerous and inhumane working conditions present in many American factories.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was located on the top three floors (the 8th, 9th and 10th) of the Asch building in New York City. It employed about 500 workers, mostly women who were recent immigrants from Europe. Some of the workers were as young as 12; at that time, very few states had enacted child labor laws and there was no federal law on the books. Each shift in the factory was 14 hours long and most employees worked 60 to 72 hours per week. The average wage was $1.50 per week.
The first two decades of the 20th century was a time of turmoil for the garment industry in the United States. In 1909, a massive strike, known as the Uprising of 20,000, had occurred among the garment workers in New York City. The strike had begun at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company when 20 percent of the workforce walked off the job. When the company's owners realized what was happening, they locked the rest of the workers out for the duration of the strike. In the end, the strike failed to achieve all its goals, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was one of the companies which refused to sign an agreement with the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union. The women continued to work with no union representation with essentially the same salary and working conditions as before.
March 25, 1911, was a Saturday. Spring was in the air and the weather was warm. At 4:45PM, manager Samuel Bernstein discovered a small fire on the eighth floor, most likely caused by a thoughtlessly discarded cigarette or match. He tried to put the fire out himself, but since the crowded factory floor was stacked high with combustible fabrics and other materials, it was soon out of control. The eighth floor was quickly evacuated as was the tenth, but poor communications between floors meant that the employees on the ninth floor got the word too late.
There were only two exit doors on the ninth floor. One of the exits led to a stairwell that was already filled with smoke and flames by the time the seamstresses learned of the fire on the floor below them. The other door was locked, either to keep employees from taking unauthorized breaks or to keep union organizers from sneaking onto the factory floor. There was an external fire escape attached to the side of the building, but it was flimsy and not properly anchored to the building's outer wall. Some of the women made it down the iron escape, but it became twisted from the heat and soon detached from the building.
The elevator soon stopped working as well; according to witnesses, this was because the elevator shaft door had been pried open and some of the employees were jumping down the shaft on the elevator car's roof. It was soon obvious to everyone left on the ninth floor that there was no means of escape left to them. Some of the women broke out windows and jumped to the street below; very few survived and those who did were severely injured. More than 100 of those who died that day died from the impact of their falls.
Those who did not jump and who could not escape by other means simply waited until they were taken by the smoke and flames. There were no fire extinguishers on the floor and the New York City Fire Department's ladders could only reach as far as the sixth floor. All told, 146 people died.
Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the two men who owned the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, survived the fire and were put on trial for manslaughter. Their defense attorney was able to convince the jury that the two men were not responsible because they were ignorant of some of the safety deficiencies present in the factory. They were acquitted. In 1913, however, they lost a civil suit brought by the families of the victims.
As a result of the fire, reformers in the New York City government began to push comprehensive safety and workers' compensation laws. It would take another 20 years for substantial gain to be made at both the local and federal level, but the public was at least more aware.
The Asch building survived and was repaired. Today, it is part of New York University and is called the Brown Building of Science.
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