1911 Seventy-five Years Ago

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Late in the afternoon on Saturday, March 25, on the top floors of the Asch Building near Washington Square in New York City, six hundred garment workers rose from their machines and cutting tables and prepared to go home. Most were immigrants—Italians or Russian Jews —and the majority were girls and women between the ages of thirteen and thirty. It was the end of their six-day workweek, and they were eager to leave. As they wound their way past bins heaped with lint and rags, crowded rows of sewing machines, and tables covered with bolts of cloth, someone may have stopped for a last furtive cigarette and tossed a match carelessly aside. How it started was never determined, but suddenly, on the eighth floor, a fire leaped up, and despite efforts to extinguish it, it spread quickly.

The young women rushed for the two exits. The first led to a passageway that was twenty inches wide, so narrow that only one person could walk through at a time. It had been devised by the owners to prevent employees from slipping by without having their handbags inspected for stolen material. This exit was immediately choked with terrified people, as were the two small elevators and the narrow, winding staircase beyond it. The second exit, a wider doorway on the other side of which lay another staircase, was also besieged. But the company’s owners distrusted their employees and wanted to be sure that they left the eighth floor, and the similarly designed ninth and tenth floors, through the twenty-inch passageways. And so, as the fire spread from the eighth to the tenth floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, the workers fled from the impassable hallways to the other exits and found them locked on every floor.

Fewer than twenty clambered to safety down the building’s precipitous wroughtiron fire escape, after which it softened from the fire’s heat and collapsed, pitching those still on it into the courtyard below. Most workers on the tenth floor survived by climbing to the roof, where New York University students from the next building held two ladders for them to step across. Many others did manage to flee down the available staircase, and on the eighth floor the locked door was eventually smashed open. But those trapped by the smoke and fire—nearly a quarter of the employees—were driven to a frenzy. Some twenty threw themselves into the elevator shafts and were crushed. Sixty others, the flames lapping at their clothes, ran to the windows. The first policeman to reach the building later described what he saw: “Dozens of girls were hanging from the ledges. Others, their dresses on fire, were leaping from the windows.” Once the firefighters arrived, they stood below with nets outstretched, but many of the jumpers were little more than children, and, as children do, they held hands for courage. “Life nets?” asked the battalion chief. “What good were life nets? The little ones went through life nets, pavement, and all. I thought they would come down one at a time. I didn’t know they would come down with arms entwined—three and even four together.”

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire lasted thirty minutes, and within that time 146 people died and 70 were seriously injured. The company’s owners were tried on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter and were found not guilty. A year before, their employees had struck for better sanitary and safety conditions. But the living weren’t as persuasive as the dead, and after the disaster, the New York state legislature was moved to appoint a Factory Investigation Commission. Before long, thirty new ordinances were added to New York’s fire code.

•February 6: The Old Age Home for Pioneers opens in Prescott, Arizona.

•March 3 : The first U.S. Army Dental Corps commissions are authorized.