On March 25, 1911, the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City took place as the Triangle Waist Company factory burst into flames. The factory occupied the three floors, the 8th, 9th, and 10th, of the ten-story Asch Building which was located on the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in the section of the city known as Greenwich Village. The fire is on record as the fourth highest loss of life in an industrial setting in United States History, and since 9-11, it is the third deadliest disaster of any kind in the city.
The blaze led to the deaths of 146 garment workers. Some died from the fire, others from smoke inhalation, and still others died from falling to their deaths as they jumped out of the windows to escape the fire. The victims were mostly female and their ages spanned from 14-48. In that group, most were Jewish and Italian immigrants who had recently arrived in America seeking a better life. Their ages ranged from 16-23. The two youngest victims were only 14 years old.
The factory was owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. They produced blouses for women, which at the time were known as shirtwaists. They employed approximately 500 workers. The general workweek was six days. On Monday through Friday, the ladies worried nine hour days. On Saturdays, their work day was seven hours long. They were paid between $7 and $12 a week.
On March 25, as the workday was winding up at about 4:40 PM, a fire flared up in a scrap bin under one of the cutter’s tables in the northwest corner of the eighth floor. Five minutes later a passerby on Washington Place saw smoke coming from the eighth floor and sounded the first alert of fire. Both of the owners were at the factory when the fire broke out. They had brought their children along with them.
A warning was delivered to the tenth floor via telephone from a bookkeeper on the eighth floor. There was no alarm system, and the no way to alert the workers on the 9th floor. Yetta Lubitz, who worked on the 9th floor survived. She said the fire and the warning arrived at the same time. That floor had two freight elevators and a fire escape. There were two stairway exits. The exit to Greene Street was only open for about three minutes before it was impossible to reach due to the fire, and the Washington Place stairway exit was locked. The one may with the key, escaped the building without unlocking it.
While dozens did escape the fire by going up the Greene Street stairway to the roof. Other survivors were able to jam themselves into the elevators while they continued to operate.
The exterior fire escape was made of flimsy and poorly anchored iron and could possibly have been in a state of disrepair. Nonetheless, horrified employees crowded onto it trying to escape death. Under the weight, the structure twisted, possibly from the heat. It soon collapsed from the twisting and the overload. Victims plummeted nearly 100 feet to their deaths as they crashed on the concrete pavement below.
The elevator operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo saved many lives that day as they traveled three times up to the ninth floor for passengers. Mortillalo was eventually forced to give up when the rails of his elevator buckled under the heat. The elevator doors were pried open by desperate workers. They jumped into the empty shaft and tried to slide down the cables or to land on top of the car and ride it down. it was the weight and impacts of these bodies that warped the elevator car and made it impossible for Zito to make another attempt to rescue even more.
Meanwhile a crowd of bystanders gathered on the street below. They witnessed sixty-two people jumping or falling to their deaths from the burning building. Their emotions ran high. It was an hysterical scene. People tried to break through the police lines.
Even though the fire department arrive quickly, they were unable to stope the flames. No ladders were available to reach higher than the sixth floor. They were also hindered by the number of fallen bodies and falling victims as they tried desperately to do their job.
The cause of the fire was determined by the fire marshal to most likely be that someone tossed a match or cigarette butt into the scrap bin. That bin had not been emptied in two months.
Were they allowed to smoke in the factory? No. Smoking was banned from the premises. However, some workers were known to sneak a cigarette once in a while. It was said that they would exhale through the lapels of their clothing in order to keep the smoke from being detected.
However, others believe the cause of the fire might have been started by an engine running the sewing machines.
What made this fire so deadly? The women could not escape because managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits in an effort to prevent the women from taking unauthorized breaks and to curb pilfering.
This fire so outraged the nation, that it led to the passage of legislation to place factories under greater safety standards. The fire gave rise to the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, a group that continued to fight for better working conditions in what has been known as the “sweatshops”.
Blanck and Harris, the owners, escaped by climbing to the roof at the beginning of the fire. Both were indicted on charges of first and second degree manslaughter. They were both acquitted. Their defense attorney, Max Steuer was shrewd. He asked eye witnesses the same questions over and over, and even though they hardly ever strayed from the original story, he argued that they had possibly been told what to say and had memorized their statements. The attorney also argued that neither of the men were aware that the stairs had been locked.
Later, in 1913, they were charged in a civil suit. The plaintiffs won a compensation in the amount of $75 for each deceased victim. It should be noted that the insurance company paid the two owners about $60,000 which amounted to about $400 per casualty.
In that same year, Blanck was arrested again for locking the door to his factory during working hours. He was fined a grand total of $20.
The Legislature of the State of New York created the Factory Investigating Commission for the purpose of investigating factory conditions. The Commission held public hearings, distributed questionnaires, and hired field agents to do on-site inspections. With the aid of the New York Fire Department inspection reports, state labor laws were modernized. Reform had begun. For the 146 victims of the fire, they came a little too late.
Today, the site it known as the Brown Building. It has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.