Death & the Maiden’s own Sarah Chavez (Troop) shares the horrifying story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, New York City on March 25, 1911. An entire nation grieved over the 148 deaths that occurred that day, so easily preventable. Their collective outrage changed U.S. labor laws and led to the adoption of fire safety measures. Many call it the day the New Deal was born. Women factory workers had previously protested their working conditions and demanded better wages. Apparently, women’s voices were not enough, they would pay, for the benefit of us all, with their lives.
On March 25th 1911, just one block north of Washington Square at the corner of Greene Street and Waverly, Mrs. Lena Goldman was sweeping the sidewalk in front of her little restaurant – it would soon be time for the dinner rush.
Dr. Winterbottom, who lived nearby, looked out over the square to observe people running toward Washington Place. Moments later with his medical bag in hand, he too joined the fray, racing across the square.
Dominick Cardiane was pushing a wheelbarrow down Greene Street when he heard a sound like “a big puff” followed by the sound of breaking glass. The noises spook a horse, who rears up and proceeds to run down the street, the cart it is pulling bouncing wildly behind.
William Shepherd, a reporter for the United Press, was crossing over to Washington Place when he saw smoke pouring out of a window on the 8th floor of the Asch building. Shepherd was soon standing among many others on the street below.
They all saw what looked like a bundle of fabric from the garment factory come out of the window. “He’s trying to save the best cloth,” remarked a man, thinking that the factory owners were tossing out their fabric in an attempt to save it.
Halfway down, the wind caught it and the bundle opened.
It was not a bundle – it was a girl.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, manufactured shirtwaists for ladies – located on the 8th and 9th floors of the Asch Building the factory employed approximately 100 men who mainly filled supervisory positions and 500 women and young girls. The majority of the girls were immigrants. Pauline Newman, who came from Lithuania and worked at the factory stated, “It resembled a kindergarten: we were all youngsters. The day’s work was supposed to end at six in the afternoon. But, during most of the year we youngsters worked overtime until 9 every night except Fridays and Saturdays. No, we did not get additional pay for overtime. I will never forget the sign which on Saturday afternoons was posted on the wall near the elevator stating — “If you don’t come in on Sunday you need not come in on Monday!”
They were the kind of employers who didn’t recognize anyone working for them as a human being. You were not allowed to sing. You were not allowed to talk to each other. They would sneak up behind you, and if you were found talking to your next colleague you were admonished. If you’d keep on, you’d be fired. If you went to the toilet, and you were there more than the forelady or foreman thought you should be, you were threatened to be laid off for a half a day, and sent home, and that meant, of course, no pay, you know? You were watched every minute of the day by the foreman, forelady.”
The girls started work at 7:30 in the morning and were given a single half hour for lunch. Another employee of the Triangle factory described their conditions as “unsanitary – that’s the word that is generally used, but there ought to be a worse one used. Whenever we tear or damage any of the goods we sew on, or whenever it is found damaged after we are through with it, whether we have done it or not, we are charged for the piece and sometimes for a whole yard of the material. At the beginning of every slow season, $2 is deducted from our salaries. We have never been able to find out what this is for.”
There was an area of the factory called “the children’s corner” which housed large cases that were high and deep enough for the children to hide in, so that when a factory inspector came he found no violation of the child labor law, because he did not see any children at work because they were all hidden in the cases and covered up with shirt waists.
It had been a Saturday that day and most of the women and men employed at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had been kept working until just before 5 o’clock, by factory owners Max Blanck and Issac Harris. Just before quitting time, as the girls were gathering up their belongings to leave, someone yelled “FIRE!”
A still burning match or cigarette had been carelessly discarded. With piles of fabric everywhere and completed shirtwaists hanging from lines just overhead, within a few short minutes the fire had turned into an inferno, flames and smoke pouring out of the 8th, 9th and 10th floors.
Since the building was considered fireproof there was only a single, flimsy fire escape, one working elevator and all the doors, which opened inward, were kept locked in an effort to prevent theft. All of the Triangle factory employees were subject to searches when they exited at the close of the work day.
The foreman and a number of the male employees did their best to douse the flames with the available water buckets, alas, it was to no avail.
A few were able to escape via the narrow stairwell. Some 200, including Blanck and Harris were able to get to safety by making their way up to the roof – a means of escape not widely known.
Heroic elevator operators were able to save some of the girls by making as many trips as they could before the elevator broke down. The picture of smoldering, terror stricken girls – crying, screaming, scratching – would haunt them, always.
When the elevator finally ceased operation a number of people tried to escape by sliding down the elevator cables but instead, fell to their deaths, while others simply jumped. Some 25 bodies were later recovered from the bottom of the elevator shaft – only two survived. It is believed that the dead bodies of their fellow co-workers cushioned their fall, allowing them to survive. On the final trip, elevator operator Joseph Zitto would later testify that he could hear the bodies falling, hitting the top of the car – then, the blood and the coins from pockets and purses began to rain down upon them.
Outside, if you remember, was United Press reporter William Shepherd. It was through his eyes that most of the nation experienced the next eighteen minutes. Shepherd phoned in details while watching the horrific events unfold, while young Roy Howard telegraphed his story to the nation’s newspapers.
Shepherd begins – “I saw every feature of the tragedy visible from outside the building. I learned a new sound–a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.”
I looked up and saw that there were scores of girls at the windows. The flames from the floor below were beating in their faces. There was a living picture in each window – screaming heads of girls waving their arms. We cried to them not to jump. We heard the siren of a fire engine in the distance. The other sirens sounded from several directions.”
However, when the fire trucks arrived their ladders only reached between the 6th and 7th floors and the water from the fire hoses not past the 7th floor.
They took out fire nets to catch the falling girls but their bodies only broke through the nets, crashing to the sidewalk below.
Shepherd continues: “I looked up to see whether those above watched those who fell. I noticed that they did; they watched them every inch of the way down and probably heard the roaring thuds that we heard. It seemed to me that the thuds were so loud that they might have been heard all over the city.
As I looked up I saw a love affair in the midst of all the horror. A young man helped a girl to the window sill. Then he held her out, deliberately away from the building and let her drop. He seemed cool and calculating. He held out a second girl the same way and let her drop. Then he held out a third girl who did not resist. They were as unresisting as if he were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity. Undoubtedly he saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames, and his was only a terrible chivalry.
Then came the love amid the flames. He brought another girl to the window. Those of us who were looking, saw her put her arms about him and kiss him. Then he held her out into space and dropped her. But quick as a flash he was on the window sill himself. I saw his face before they covered it. You could see in it that he was a real man. He had done his best.
We found out later that, in the room in which he stood, many girls were being burned to death by the flames and were screaming in an inferno of flame and heat. He chose the easiest way and was brave enough to even help the girl he loved to a quicker death, after she had given him a goodbye kiss. He leaped with an energy as if to arrive first in that mysterious land of eternity.
Up on the [ninth] floor girls were burning to death before our very eyes. They were jammed in the windows. No one was lucky enough to be able to jump, it seemed. But, one by one, the jams broke. Down came the bodies in a shower, burning, smoking-flaming bodies, with disheveled hair trailing upward. They had fought each other to die by jumping instead of by fire.”
At the same time, rescue efforts were happening all over –
Across the way at New York University’s Law School building several law students led by Charles Kremer and Elias Kanter tied two short ladders together so the factory workers could climb across to their building’s roof. Kremer went over to the 10th floor to look for survivors and found a single girl, her hair on fire, running toward him. He caught her in his arms where she fainted as he put out the fire with his hands. They were able to save some 150 men, women and girls that day. Shockingly, a number of law students reported witnessing men kicking, biting and beating the women and girls so they could escape to safety first.
Forewoman, Fannie Lansner was a calm presence, speaking both Yiddish and English to the girls who were huddled about her, all crying and screaming. Lansner guided some of them down the stairways and kept watch over others waiting for the elevator Trip after trip the elevator made and Miss Lansner remained on the floor, and though several girls begged her to go with them down, Miss Lansner said she would be “all right,” and told them to go out as quickly as possible. She would lose her life in the fire.
Dr. Ralph Fralick did want he could from the street, checking everyone he could after they struck the pavement, attempting to administer first aid or injections for pain when possible. He later told officials that he was not able to save anyone, but he felt he had helped a few young girls to pass with a bit less pain.
Three male cutters formed a human chain from the 8th floor window to an adjacent window next door. Some girls were able to cross over on the backs of the three men. But the men lost their balance and all three fell – to join the already growing number on the pavement.
Meanwhile, the girls kept jumping.
Five young women on the Greene Street side embraced each other and jumped. They crashed right through the sidewalk and into the basement, their clothes and hair burning as they fell. Another group of girls grabbed onto an electric cable which could not hold their weight – it snapped and they all fell to the sidewalk below.
One girl jumped holding a fire bucket. Another one tossed her purse, her hat and then herself. Some jumped together, holding fast to one another, while others leapt alone.
Broken, twisted bodies lay in heaps on the sidewalks and by now there were thousands of spectators behind the police lines unable to believe what they were witnessing.
The firemen were now able to enter the building with their hoses to extinguish the flames. The steel and concrete structure was undamaged — for the Triangle Building itself did indeed prove to be fireproof. Firemen would later say that they found 19 bodies melted against the locked door. 25 were found huddled in death in the cloakroom trying to escape the flames, some with their hands covering their faces in death. Another group of girls was discovered in a small room refused to move to safety, so in shock they were the rescuers had to beat them to safety.
As night began to fall, search lights were directed to the upper floors creating a chilling effect to the already grim sight. Using nets, the firemen lowered the bodies, out the window to the waiting police below. The nets were soon exhausted and blankets from the horses were used. The bodies were spread in a row on the east side of Greene Street, many of them in coffins. Only 65 coffins were available, so the steamship, The Bronx, was sent to Blackwell’s Island to bring down a supply of 200 additional coffins.
Throughout the night, ambulances transported the dead bodies to Bellevue Morgue on 26th Street and to the adjoining pier on the East River.
A reporter from the New York Times remarked that the “remains of the dead, it is hardly possible to call them bodies because that would suggest something human, and there was nothing human about most of these” were being taken in a steady stream to the morgue for identification.
Police estimates of 200,000 people – family and friends as well as the curious entered the makeshift morgues to file past the coffins. Authorities were completely unprepared by the new horrors that would come next – a growing number of victims’ loved ones became hysterical and suicidal and a makeshift hospital was created to attend to these poor people.
Unbelievable stories of anguish were shared by families – a mother identified her daughter by what remained of her hand stitched stocking; a girl was identified by a family ring burned into her flesh; a father who, after waiting in the line for five hours identified all three of his daughters and, grief stricken attempted suicide on the spot. A lady identified her fiancée by his ring. When she asked if a pocket watch had been found with his remains the watch was produced. When she opened it she gazed upon her very own portrait and became hysterical. Their engagement had taken place just the night before.
Then there was the nightmare for those who did survive – Rose Cohen having escaped the fire and made her way home said, “I couldn’t stop crying for hours, for days. Afterwards, I used to dream I was falling from a window, screaming. I remember I would holler to my mother in the dark, waking everybody up, ‘Mama! I just jumped out of a window!’ Then I would start crying and I couldn’t stop.”
An entire nation grieved over the 148 deaths, so easily preventable. Their collective outrage changed U.S. labor laws and led to the adoption of fire safety measures. Many call it the day the New Deal was born. Women factory workers had previously protested their working conditions and demanded better wages. Apparently, women’s voices were not enough, they would pay, for the benefit of us all, with their lives.
The factory owners, Blanck and Harris were brought to trial and were found not guilty by a jury of their all male peers. They made some $60,000 off the tragedy. Some of the families rallied together and sued the pair, but in the end they were only compensated $75 a piece in exchange for a human life.
Just two years later, Blanck was caught violating the fire codes – he had been locking the factory doors. He was fined only $20.00.
Rest in peace dear ones – you have not been forgotten, not even in the passing of a hundred years.
Cornell University Website, Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire
The Names Map displays the name, home address, likely age, country of origin, and final resting place of all known Triangle Fire victims.