- Historic Sites
The Terrible Triangle Fire
The tragedy that trapped and killed 146 employees started small but made a big mark in history
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
On the street, one hundred feet below, the first sign of the impending disaster was a bare wisp of smoke curling out of an eighth-story window in the Asch building. Among the onlookers on Washington Place whose attention was caught by the faint trace of smoke was James Cooper, a World reporter. “For fully a minute,” Cooper wrote in the Sunday morning edition of his paper, “the spectators seemed in doubt as to whether the smoke meant fire or was simply some unusual smoke that might come from a machine used for manufacturing purposes.
“Within another minute the entire eighth floor was spouting little jets of (lame from the windows as if the floor was surrounded by a row of incandescent lights,” Cooper wrote. The fire quickly attracted a small crowd. Someone remarked to Cooper that it was “mighty hard work” to burn a fireproof building and how lucky it was that “it’s Saturday afternoon. It looks as if everyone was out of the place.”
The growing crowd of spectators had observed no signs of life according to Cooper’s account when “suddenly something that looked like a bale of dark dress goods was hurled from an eighth-story window. ‘Somebody’s in there all right,’ exclaimed a spectator. ‘He’s trying to save the best cloth.’” Then, “Another seeming bundle of cloth came hurtling through the same window, but this time a breeze tossed open the cloth and from the crowd of 500 persons came a cry of horror. The breeze disclosed the form of a girl shooting down to instant death.”
“We were there three minutes after the alarm,” Fire Captain Howard C. Ruch of Engine Company 18 testified, “and it took us four minutes to make our connections and ‘stretch in.’ By that time people were jumping from the windows so fast that before we could turn the water on our line was buried under bodies and we had to lift them off before we could get to work.”
Since the Asch building was fireproof the flames could not eat into the walls nor burn through the floors. Feeding upon the great piles of flimsy material and given a booster shot by two barrels of oil on the eighth floor, the flames curved about in a hungry vortex.
The fire spread to the top two floors by a process called “lapping in” by firemen. Flames reaching out of the eighth-floor windows were sucked in through the ninth- and tenth-floor windows. Along the windows on the ninth floor a multitude of paper patterns hung. The doors on the ninth and tenth floors to the Greene Street stairs were open as was the door to the roof. The effect on the fire was like opening the damper and the pipe draft in an old wood-burning stove already fired with dry kindling.
Within the eighth floor, the flaming whirlpool forced some 225 girls and men into panicky flight. Since the fire began in the cutting room, the Greene Street exits—the freight elevators and stairs normally used by the employees—were blocked by a sheet of flame. Most of the girls bolted in terror for the Washington Place door. This door was locked. Harris and Blanck, as a matter of policy, kept the Washington Place doors on the eighth and ninth floors locked, compelling the girls to leave the shop by a narrow passageway leading to the Greene Street freight elevators, where handbags were examined to see that no one stole a bit of lace or a piece of silk.
Louis Brown, the machinist, later denied that the door was locked. However, he did testify that he had “wanted to see if it was locked. I tried to turn the key, and it would not turn.” The door was forced open and the girls rushed out.
One hundred and twenty-five frightened creatures fought to escape by a 33-inch-wide winding stairway. There were no lights, according to the girls and the firemen, and they had to grope their way down. A girl fainted or i’ell on the seventh floor, others fell on top of her, jamming the stairs behind them. Most of the girls were still in the room with the fire blistering their backs as they clawed in terror those in front of them.
One survivor, Rose Bernstein, testified: “A girl’s clothes caught on fire, and a man’s, and they jumped, f seen one girl run to a window, and when I got down to the sidewalk, I had to step over her.”
A policeman, Median, who had run np the stairs, managed, with the help of Brown, to break the jam of girls on the seventh floor. Every girl who managed to get into the stairway from the eighth floor got out alive.
The boy Tador and an operator, Starkofsky, ran for the eighth-floor fire escape once it became apparent that further fire fighting was futile. Some ten or twelve girls and men followed them in their flight out the two windows leading to the fire escape. The escape was an eighteen-inch-wide ladderway and a series of landings ending five feet from the ground in a closed court. The Asch building was unusual in this respect; under the law, loft buildings were not required to have fire escapes.
Tador, leading the way, made it to the bottom in what amounted to a series of falls, the last of which broke the skylight in the court. He got out of the building through the cellar. One man let himself down from landing to landing by tying together two sections of machine belting. The rest managed to escape through the windows on the sixth floor where they were found later, bleeding and moaning.