- 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
How those fortunate enough to make it to the sixth floor managed can only be guessed. The girls had to cross a little gangway across the window to reach the platform opening where ladder-like stairs led to the next floor. At this point two heavy sheet-iron shutters blocked the fire escape. The shutters opened outward, one of them to be secured with a heavy iron hook; one of these hooks had fallen through the iron treads on the eighth Iloor escape-way and had so firmly jammed that the escapees from the ninth floor could go no farther.
The crowd jamming the fire escape on the eighth floor bent the railings out of shape. The Fire Commission later estimated that the occupants of the upper three floors of the Asch building could not have gotten clown by the fire escape in less than three hours. As it was, this “good and sufficient means of egress” saved fewer than twenty lives. The closed court was soon choked with smoke and flames from the fire.
So far as anyone knows the tenth floor got the alarm before the ill-fated ninth. Nearly everyone on the top iloor escaped through the Gieene Street stairway to the roof.
Twenty New York University law students, attending a lecture by Professor Frank A. Sommer, came to the aid of the Triangle employees who had managed to reach the roof. The university root was some ten feet higher than that of the Asch building. Luckily, however, the students found two ladders, which were lowered to the girls. Even this aid came too late for some, who mad with terror and pain, dresses and hair aflame, leaped into the fire and smoke-filled air shaft containing the useless fire escape.
On the ninth floor most of the girls were still in the dressing room when the first flames lapped into the open windows from the floor below. Annie UlIo, 26-year-old forelady on the ninth floor, told a World reporter: “At about quarter to five I went to the coat room and got my things. Just as I started to put on my coat I heard the cry Tire/ I dashed into the room already dense with smoke through which curled flame. With a rush I was at the Washington Place stairway, but the door was locked.”
“We run first to the elevator,” Natie Weiner explained, “and he was not up. We knocked on the door and he didn’t come.” Then the girls turned to the Washington Place door. “It was locked and there was no key there. … I tried to break it open, and I couldn’t. … There was a woman forty years old there who was burned—Mary Herman—and Bessie Bischofsky, and there was others, and they was next to me and with me at the door; and I said to the woman, ‘You try. You may be stronger.’ She said, ‘I can’t.’ So then I said, ‘Let us all go at it.’ And we did.”
But they never got the door open. The lock, with the bolt shot, was found after the fire in the debris just inside the burnt-out doorway.
The passageway to the Greene Street door on the ninth floor was only twenty inches wide. The door opened inward. Men and girls tore the clothes off one another in the effort to get through. One hundred and fifty made it into the narrow stairway and three quarters of them got down to the street alive.
However, the exodus through the Greene Street doorway was much too slow. “The girls behind us were screaming and crying,” Tessa Benani testified. “Several of them, as the flames crept up closer, ran into the smoke, and we heard them scream as the flames caught their clothes. One little girl who worked at the machine opposite me cried out in Italian, ‘Goodbye, goodbye!’ I have not seen her since. My cousin Josey staggered through the mob and made direct for the flames. The next I heard of her was when they brought her body home from the morgue. She had jumped.”
Fifty-eight girls crawled into a little corridor or cloak room where they were found later, burned to death, their faces raised toward a little window.
Natie Weiner broke the glass in the door of one of the Washington Street elevators and opened it. She tried to rescue her sister Rosie, who died a victim of the fire. “Rosie collapsed from fear,” Natie said. “I tried to drag her to the stairway. Another girl—I don’t know who she was—tried to help me. The flames swept about us and I was literally brushed to the open door. I thought Rosie was too. I slid down the cable of the elevator nine floors. My hands were torn and burned.”
The Washington Street passenger elevators ran until one operator fainted and the other could no longer continue as girls jumping in the elevator well jammed the operation of the car.
On the Greene Street side of the Asch building, the freight elevators “ran until they wouldn’t run.” “We were putting in the switch cables till they were overrun with water,” Thomas Horton, the Negro porter recalls. “They stuck. The circuit-breakers were blowing out.”
As Horton toiled grimly in the basement to keep the motors going, the elevator operators opened their doors at random in the blinding smoke, making desperate guesses as to floor openings. Fire streamed into the shafts, flame bit at the cables, and the girls jumping in suicidal fright jammed the operation of the cars. Nineteen bodies were found later wedged between the car and shaft in one of the Greene Street freight elevator wells.