The Terrible Triangle Fire

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Most fires start small; few are chosen to make an impact on history. The tragic Triangle Waist Company fire, which consumed 146 lives, most of them young girls, on March 25, 1911, was one of the latter. The fire, which swept the top three floors of the ten-story Asch building—now the Brown building of New York University—one block east of Washington Square on the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in New York City, acted as a catalyst on social reform. The Triangle tragedy brought together the Progressive reformer, the social worker, the urban trade unions, and Tammany behind a demand for factory legislation, thereby giving birth to a voting complex that ultimately helped to shape the New Deal.

At the start the fire seemed harmless. Not long before, Max Blanck, one of the partners who owned the Triangle Waist Company, had put out a small blaze in the shop with his coat. The company was one of the largest of its kind, employing 1,000 workers, although only a little over half that number were at work on that fateful Saturday afternoon. The employees were working overtime to fill back orders caused by a strike which had centered around the Triangle Company a short time previous. The rest of the building was nearly empty, all the other firms having closed down at three o’clock.

The bell rang “power-off” at 4:30 P.M. The whirring sewing machines, six ranks with twenty machines in each, fell silent. Most of the girls, clutching their pay envelopes, left the tables immediately for the dressing rooms and washrooms. The windows facing south and east were open to catch the breezes of spring, and the girls were eager to get out to enjoy the last hour or so of a fine clay.

Chattering gaily in several languages they left the cluttered sewing room. They couldn’t move as fast as they would have liked. The tables were so close together that chairs touched back to back in between the rows. The Asch building was typical of the 790 tower loft buildings erected in New York City during the first decade of the century; plenty of air space above the workers’ heads but very little elbow room on the floor. New York factory laws specified 250 cubic feet of air for each worker but neglected to state the space the air must occupy. The gain in workers per floor space to be made by moving from a tenement factory with its eight-foot ceiling to the loft building with a ten- or eleven-foot ceiling is obvious.

The wicker baskets in the aisles were piled high with finished goods of silk, lawn, and lace with the fancy embroidery of spring and summer shirtwaists then so much in fashion. In the work space on the table between the machines the cards of lace and the cut piece goods were stacked. The shop turned out 900 dozen muslin and lingerie waists in a week. The shelves were loaded with rolls of lawn and muslin as well as wicker baskets filled with bundles of finished and cut goods waiting for the next step in production.

On the cutting tables stretches of lawn—175 to 180 layers of lawn alternating with layers of tissue paper in each stretch—were laid out ready for Sunday’s work. The great bins beneath the cutting tables were filled with rags ;md waste. Louis Levy, the rag buyer, hadn’t been around to pick up the lint, remnants, and rags since January 15.

The cutters, inveterate smokers, perhaps lingered for a last puff on a cigarette carefully cupped in the palm of the hand before leaving for the day. From habit, they blew the smoke under their coats, thoroughly schooled in the practice which enabled the boss to overlook the obvious violation of fire regulations. “You would get little work out of your men if you would prevent it,” the dress manufacturer on the floor below the Triangle Waist Company is reported as saying after the fire.

How the fire actually started was never satisfactorily explained: “A cutter let a match fall on some old waste”; “Some one stepped on a match on the floor”; “A man was (leaning his coat with gasoline.”

These fragments of testimony were offered by survivors later. Fire Chief Edward F. Croker believed that the spark ol a cigarette ignited gasoline used for heating pressing irons on the eighth floor. The first notice of the fire was from one of the girls, Eva Harris, who ran to tell the factory manager, Samuel Bernstein, that two boys were putting out a fire over between two tables on the Greene Street side.

“It was in a rag bin,” Bernstein later testified, “and it jumped right up.” He grabbed two water pails and with the help of Max Rother, a tailor, attempted to douse the blaze. “But it was like there was kerosene in the water; it just seemed to spread it.”

Frank Formalek, an elevator man, left his car to help. Louis Senderman and a boy, Leo Tador, tried to use the standpipe hose in the hall but they couldn’t turn the valve-wheel. “It was rusted and the hose, wherever it was folded, was rotten.”

At 4:35 P.M. , Diana Lipschitz, bookkeeper on the eighth door, sent in an alarm and telautographed a message to the main offices on the ninth floor: “The place is on fire: Run for your lives.” The bookkeeper on the tenth floor, Mary Alter, turned to some girls standing nearby and said, “Diana is stringing me; what does she take me for?”

Meanwhile, Bernstein yelled to Louis Brown, a machinist, to get the girls out; nothing cotdd be done to stop the fire.