Triangle Fire Essay, Research Paper
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, NY, NY-1911
Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same. The images of death were seared deeply in their mind’s eyes.
Many of the Triangle factory workers were women, some as young as 15 years old. They were, for the most part, recent Italian and European Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States with their families to seek a better life. Instead, they faced lives of grinding poverty and horrifying working conditions. As recent immigrants struggling with a new language and culture, the working poor were ready victims for the factory owners.(http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/).
The Triangle Waist Company was one of the largest shirtwaist manufacturers at the time of the fire. Located in the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building in Greenwich Village, it usually employed 900 workers. On the day of the fire, only between 500 to 600 workers were there. When the fire was out, 146 were dead.
How the fire started no one knows. On the three upper floors of the building were 600 employes of the waist company, 500 of whom were girls. . The fire began small, but attempts to put it out failed. The fire jumped from debris pile to debris pile, eating up the fabric used in making the shirtwaists. The workers began to rush to the stairways and elevators. Some made it down the eight flights of stairs, though at least one door leading to the staircase was locked. Some workers made it down the elevators. Some even successfully jumped down elevator shafts once the elevators stopped working. The workers were hindered by the exits that were either locked or blocked and windows that were rusted shut. Only one door was open at the time the workers were trying to escape. Many workers were left trapped behind the mob of escaping co-workers or between the long work tables.When the fire department reached the Asch Building, the ladder truck was of no use, having a ladder that only reached to the seventh floor. Once the firemen had successfully connected their hoses, the entire eighth floor was aflame. The firemen enlisted spectators to assist in holding the safety nets so that the workers that were escaping to the ledge of the building could jump to safety. The victims mostly Italians, Russians, Hungarians, and Germans were girls and men who had been employed by the firm of Harris & Blanck, owners of the Triangle Waist Company, after the strike in which the Jewish girls, formerly employed, had been become unionized and had demanded better working conditions. The building had experienced four recent fires and had been reported by the Fire Department to the Building Department as unsafe in account of the insufficiency of its exits.
The building itself was of the most modern construction and classed as fireproof. What burned so quickly and disastrously for the victims were shirtwaists, hanging on lines above tiers of workers, sewing machines placed so closely together that there was hardly aisle room for the girls between them, and shirtwaist trimmings and cuttings which littered the floors above the eighth and ninth stories.
Girls had begun leaping from the eighth story windows before firemen arrived. The firemen had trouble bringing their apparatus into position because of the bodies which strewed the pavement and sidewalks. While more bodies crashed down among them, they worked with desperation to run their ladders into position and to spread firenets.
One fireman running ahead of a hose wagon, which halted to avoid running over a body spread a firenet, and two more seized hold of it. A girl’s body, coming end over end, struck on the side of it, and there was hope that she would be the first one of the score who had jumped to be saved.( New York Times, March 26, 1911, p. 1.)
Samuel Levine, a machine operator on the ninth floor, told this story when he had recovered from his injuries at the New York Hospital: “I was at work when I heard the shout of ‘Fire!’ The girls on the floor dropped everything and rushed wildly around, some in the direction of windows and others toward the elevator door. I saw the elevator go down past our floor once. It was crowded to the limit and no one could have got on. It did not stop. Not another trip was made.”There were flames all around in no time. Three girls, I think from the floor below, came rushing past me. Their clothes were on fire. I grabbed the fire pails and tried to pour the water on them, but they did not stop. They ran screaming toward the windows. I knew there was no hope there, so I stayed where I was, hoping that the elevator would come up again.( New York Times, March 26, 1911, p. 4)
The Triangle Waist Company had obvious fire violations, but up until the fire there was no one who could or would do anything to enforce them. The doors leading to the outside opened inwardly instead of out and remained locked during business hours. Law required three staircases, but there were only two for the workers at the Triangle Waist Company. Though the Asch Building was reported to be fireproof and showed very little signs of the devastating fire that took place, it had wooden window frames, floors, and trim that fueled the fire.
Fire Marshal Beers had the waist company’s owners, the building’s owner, and thirteen others before him in an investigation to determine the exact cause of the fire’s origin. His conclusion was that there was no explosion; that a lighted match thrown into waste near oil cans, or into clippings under cutting table No. 2, on the Greene Street side of the eighth floor, started the conflagration. In answer to evidence that no smoking was permitted, he declared he had many cigarette cases, picked up near the spot of the fire’s origin, and could prove that smoking was constantly indulged in.
Fire Chief Croker, dissenting from evidence furnished the Fire Marshal that the doors within the factory were not locked, declared his men to chop their way through them to gain entrance, and if not locked they were at least closed so firmly that only an axe could affect a passage through them. At the loft building itself the fire lines were withdrawn, except for a guard on the sidewalk immediately surrounding it. Crowds of morbidly curious people flocked in from all directions, blocking traffic in Washington Square East, and in Washington Place, Waverley Place, and Greene Streets.( New York Times, March 28, 1911. p. 1)
Conclusions after the fire.
Testimony of William L. Beers, Fire Marshal, City of New York
Q. What recommendations have you to make for legislation to the Commission with reference to the prevention of fires and the saving of lives, and also with reference to the spread of fires? A. Out of the city and in the city?
Q. Both. A. I think that all manufacturing establishments should have an interior automatic signalling device to call attention to fires when they occur, and they should also have an automatic extinguishing device in the form of sprinklers and of standpipes. Local fire drills should be compulsory and all the exits in factories should be marked, as in theatres, and the factory employees should be drilled the same as the crew of a ship is drilled. The fire station should be known, and the specific duties of each employee should be known in case of fire. That is, some of the men should be directed to get female employees out of the building, and the others should be directed to get the male employees together for the purpose of fighting the fire and holding it in check until such time as assistance came. I think that here in the city, all these loft buildings that are used for manufacturing purposes, the equipment should be standardized and should be as nearly fireproof as possible, and no tenant should be permitted to occupy a building of that kind without first filing a plan showing the way in which the manufacturing apparatus is to be installed, and that should be as near fireproof as possible; and he should not be permitted to fill up his building with a lot of combustible material without proper supervision. The number of persons employed in a given area should be specified and approved and the plan of the building, with the exits all marked, should be posted on the walls of the building, so that it would be there and the employees could become familiar with it, and know just where they are to go in case of fire. Smoking should be absolutely prohibited in such industries as shirt-waist making and light lawn dresses, or where any of those light inflammables are used, chiffons and veilings, straw goods, hat factories, or in any factory using a large quantity of material that is inflammable. I think, also, it would be wise to have lectures in the public schools, under the auspices of the Board of Education, instructing these employes (sic) what to do in case of fire, especially in schools located in these districts where the factory employees reside. (New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1912, 3 vols. (Albany, New York: The Argus Company, printers, 1912), 2:571, 580-583.
Testimony of Edward F. Croker, Fire Chief (p.18)
Q. Tell the Commission about the difficulties in fighting a fire of that kind. A. In a great many cases there is only about one door on that loft you can get in. Goods are piled up in front of the windows, in front of the doors, and you have got to use a battering ram to get into any of them.
Q. How about the passageways being blocked? A. Piled right to the ceiling. Many a time the firemen get into places in the night time and there is no room for a man to go through the passages.
Q. How about the passageway to a fire-escape? Do you find those blocked or open? A. Find them blocked.
Q. How about locked doors to the staircases? Have you found that? A. Oh, yes, plenty of them. The doors going to the roof are locked. They pay absolutely no attention to the fire hazard or to the protection of the employees in these buildings. That is their last consideration.
Q. What do you suggest should be done with reference to these locked doors, and things like that? A. There should be mandatory legislation to compel them to keep the doors unlocked during working hours. All doors should be opened up. Aisles should be kept.
(New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1912, 3 vols. (Albany, New York: The Argus Company, printers, 1912), p.18.
The Fire Hazard in Factory Buildings
It has long been known that there are many more fire in the cities of the United States than in the cities of the same size in Europe. There the fires are not only less frequent, but are also far less destructive. In this country fires occur almost hourly in which large amounts of property are destroyed and lives are lost.
Testimony presented to the Commission shows that in the city of New York alone, there is an average loss of one life a day, by fire. Our public machinery for extinguishing fires, especially in the larger cities, is remarkably efficient, yet this loss of life and property continues to grow.
The consideration of the fire hazard problem is divided into two parts:
1st. Investigation of conditions in existing factory buildings, and recommendations to render those premises safe.
2nd Requirements for future construction of factory buildings which will reduce the fire hazard.
The Existing Fire Problem in New York City.
Five kinds of buildings are used for factory purposes in the City of New York.
I. The converted tenement or dwelling.
The non-fireproof loft building.
The fireproof loft building less than 150 feet in height.
The fireproof loft building over 150 feet in height.( New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1912, 3 vols. (Albany, New York: The Argus Company, printers, 1912), 1:28-34.)
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire killed a lot of people, but that is what it took for labor reforms to come about. That fire inspired people to help reconstruct the industries and improve the working conditions. It also gave the workers some new hope for better wages and better all around treatment. These changes would have never came about unless these tragedies occurred. So although they were horrible events and many people died and suffered, the effect lived on in every worker in the new reformed industries.
New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1912, 3 vols. (Albany, New York: The Argus Company, printers, 1912).
New York Times, March 26, 1911, page 1, 141 Men and Girls
New York Times, March 26, 1911, page 4, Stories of Survivors