The Terrible Triangle Fire

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The street was a scene of indescribable horror. The building itself was indestructible. New York University students now attend classes on the very same floors where so many died. The smoke of the fire scarcely blackened the sky; no big, definite clouds arose to blot out the sunshine and springtime brightness of the blue above. Now and then a thin tongue of flame licked around a window sash.

Fire nets were of little help. Spectators joined with firemen and policemen to hold the huge nets. The girls, in some instances, jumped three together as if seeking courage in numbers. Fire Captain Ruch figured that each body struck the sidewalk with a force of 11,040 pounds. “The bodies didn’t break through the nets; they just carried them to the sidewalk. The force was so great it took the men off their feet; they turned somersaults over onto the bodies.”

Public reaction to the Triangle tragedy was swift. Hardly had the grim process of identification of the dead begun in the morgue when members of the Women’s Trade Union League were out visiting families of the victims in the name of the Shirt Waist Makers Union in order to ascertain their immediate relief needs. On the first day of a fund appeal for victims’ families, $14,500 came in headed by a $5,000 contribution from Andrew Carnegie. Contributions to the Red Cross totaled §103,000, and additional funds raised by the Women’s Trade Union League, the unions, the Forward Association, and the Workmen’s Circle brought the sum raised to a total of $120,000.

The fire was a personal and financial tragedy to the families of the victims in a way scarcely comprehensible to the social-security-protected world of today. Fourteen engagement rings were found on one floor of the Triangle factory—mute testimony of the loss suffered by many of the young. Most of the workers were immigrants—Italians or Russian Jews. Some were the main support of parents still in the old country.

The Triangle tragedy roused the entire East Side to feverish agitation. The grief, anger, and sorrow welling up from slum blocks south of Fourteenth Street and east of Third Avenue came to a climax on April 5. “The skies wept,” the World reporter wrote for the next day’s editions, “as 80,000 working men and women marched in procession here yesterday to prove they mourn the fate of … their fellows who perished in the fire at No. 23 Washington Place, March 25 last.”

In silence they marched up Fifth Avenue between silent crowds numbering over 250,000. Street mud oozed through the thin shoes of the young girls and older women who made up the majority of the funeral procession. Wearing arm bands reading, “We mourn our loss,” they marched for four hours in the drenching rain to the beat of muffled drums behind an empty hearse drawn by six white horses covered in black.

The fire burned away a curtain covering the appalling state of affairs existing in the factory district of New York City and elsewhere. Facts gathered by the Citizens’ Committee of Safety in describing 80 buildings with some 40,000 workers revealed that 22 had no fire escapes, 29 had obstructed fire escapes, only 8 had more than one fire escape; 35 had nailed or barred windows; 26 had locked doors, 50 had doors that opened inward; 51 had wooden and 36 dark stairways.

“Won’t it ever be safe to earn our bread?” demanded the mother of a fourteen-year-old victim. The answer may be found in the impact of the Triangle fire and of the Factory Investigation Commission appointed by the New York State legislature as a result of the tragedy on the movement for social reform. Many predecessors of reform and New Deal legislation—factory laws, workmen’s compensation, the protection of women and children in industry, minimum wage legislation—are to be found within the dusty pages of the commission report. As a result of the work of the commission a new Industrial Code, which became a model for similar legislation in other states, was adopted by the New York legislature.

The fire acted as a catalyst: Tammany learned that there were votes to be had from support of social reform; the unions and urban working people found out how much could be gained through legislation and how best to use their votes to secure reform measures; the Progressive reformer and social worker discovered that progress could be made through cooperation with the urban political machines. And men like Alfred E. Smith, Robert F. Wagner, Sr., and Franklin D. Roosevelt learned how to coalesce these groups into an effective political force.

One of the last girls to jump from the Triangle Waist Company window ledges was Sallie Weintraub. “For a minute,” an eyewitness said, “she held her hands rigid, her face upward, looking toward the sky.” The window in which she stood was etched in little tongues of flames. One licked out, touched her dress, and it began to burn. But, before she jumped, “she began to raise her arms and make gestures as if she were addressing a crowd above her.”

What she was saying, we will never know. But her mute appeal, to wrest right from wrong, has not gone unanswered.