Factory Fire Horror

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was one of the worst in the city’s history and exposed the dark underside of the Industrial Revolution

By Anjali Thomas

For less than half an hour on Saturday, March 25, 1911, every window on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building, occupied by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, was a pastiche of horror and terror. Against the backdrop of a greedy inferno, trapped garment workers—mostly Jewish and Italian teenage girls and women barely into their 20s—cried for help as firefighters watched helplessly below. The ladders could only reach the sixth story. With no means of escape, workers began jumping to their deaths—it was better than being burnt alive.

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Photograph of the fire, which appeared on the cover of The New York World. (Wikimedia Commons)

A couple kissed before they took the leap. “Thud — dead; thud — dead; thud — dead; thud — dead. Sixty-two thud-deads,” counted William Shepherd, a United Press reporter who happened to be at 23-29 Washington Street at 4:45 pm when the factory ignited. The building itself proved to be resilient to the tragedy. Rechristened the Brown Building, and now owned by New York University, it stands between Greene Street and Washington Square East in Greenwich Village.

Most of the victims were on the ninth floor, where worktables, machine oil, cloth and wicker baskets fed the inferno. The door to the stairwell that led downstairs to Washington Place had been locked. It was common practice for floor managers to block exit doors and frisk employees before they left as a safeguard against pilferage. But nobody unlocked the doors when the fire erupted. By mere chance, Ethel Monick Feige was outside the door, and escaped on the wooden freight elevator: “…Outside on the Greene St. side, I saw fire coming up through the window. I screamed ‘Fire’ and almost as soon as I did that, the flames were all around on the inside. The door was absolutely locked.” Fire officials found 19 bodies piled up against that door.

Many workers tried to flee via the fire escape, but it collapsed under their weight; 20 people fell nearly 100 feet onto the concrete pavement. Mary Domsky-Adams, who survived, said a group of men attempted to make a human ladder of themselves so that the “girls hunched in fear at the windows not yet on fire could cross over to the next building.” The human ladder collapsed. Ten men and the girls who tried to save themselves fell.

Elevator operators Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo braved the smoke and flames to make at least 15 trips to the ninth floor, transporting some 150 people to safety. But at some point, people pried the elevator doors open and slid down the cables to land on top of the car. Others jumped straight down the shaft. The impact of bodies falling onto the car forced Zito and Gaspar to give up their rescue efforts.

By the inferno’s end, 146 of 500 employees died: 129 women and 17 men. Nobody had sounded a general alarm on the ninth floor. Yet the owners, “Shirtwaist Kings” Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had been notified by the telephone operators, and they clambered to an adjacent building from the rooftop.

The fire revealed the underbelly of the industrial revolution. The Shirtwaist Kings had invested in the best technology—replacing old pedal pump sewing machines, that had at best an output of only 34 stitches a minute—with electric machines that could make 3,000 stitches a minute. But although Blanck and Harris were willing to invest in technology, they had done little to improve working conditions. In November 1909, women shirtwaist workers across New York had gone on an 11-week strike, calling for unions, better pay and safer conditions. In response, the Shirtwaist Kings increased wages, but prevented employees from forming a union. Just over a year later, many of the women who had lead the march for better safety conditions died in the fire.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, as it came to be known, was one of the worst tragedies in the city’s history, overshadowed only by the terror attack on September 11, 2001. At the time of the fire, there were 500 sweatshop factories in Manhattan filled with women and children manufacturing shirtwaists, button-down blouse dresses. The tragedy strengthened the cause of a growing labor movement. Unions were galvanized. Anti-child labor laws were instituted.

Tammany Hall, which had been hostile to the demand for labor unions by shirtwaist women workers, changed its position. Two months after the fire, the state legislature instituted a Factory Investigating Commission, spearheaded by Al Smith and Francis Wager. Within three years of the fire, New York passed laws—based on the commission’s findings—to improve conditions in factories. Smith later became the governor of New York. And, under President Franklin Roosevelt, Wagner crafted the New Deal, which supported labor laws. The fire also gave momentum to International Women’s Day, which was first observed on March 8, 1909, but had not yet garnered much attention.

“Four miles north of the site of the fire were the Fifth Avenue mansions of the rich. There was a sense of shame. The prevalent thought at the time being that ‘We are no better than the third-world countries’ at the time. It took the deaths of 146 immigrants to make room for change,” says radio broadcaster and activist Rose Imperato. “One of the first positive outcomes of the fire was the birth of the American Society of Safety Engineers in 1911. Safety standards that we take for granted, such as making sprinklers mandatory, owe their origin to the Triangle fire.” Imperato is one of many New Yorkers who has taken up the baton to keep the Triangle fire alive in public memory.

Some scars are not meant to be erased. On March 25, 2013, volunteers armed with colored chalk visited each building or location where a victim lived, and wrote the person’s name, age and cause of death on the pavement. It was the tenth year of Chalk, a street project launched by New York artist Ruth Sergel to honor the memory of the dead. “I grew up with the story of the Triangle fire. I wanted to do something, not a one-time memorial, not a passive memory. But an active and participatory memorial,” she says.

As word of Sergel’s “living memorial” has spread over the last decade, more people have signed up as volunteers. Some are descendants of the workers. From this grassroots movement the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition was born. “We set it up in 2008. We were a small group of people sitting in a room wondering how we were going to make this work,” Sergel explains. Today, the coalition is supported by 154 organizations including the New York City Fire Museum, New York University, the Museum of the City of New York, and the New York State Department of Labor.

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Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition has created a map of all the identified victims: http://rememberthetrianglefire.org/the-names/

Until 2011, only 141 victims had been identified. Every anniversary, Chalk volunteers would make marks for the unnamed dead in front of factory building. Then, in 2011, Michael Hirsch researcher and co-producer of the documentary film, ‘Triangle: Remembering the Fire,’ identified the last six victims in time for the centennial.

According to Imperato, who is on the Coalition’s board of directors, it took the centennial to arouse widespread public interest: “I grew up in Yonkers and attended a public school in the ’70s and ’80s. There was no mention of the fire in our textbooks.” Labor unions were set back dramatically during the ‘80s when President Ronald Reagan refused to bargain with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, firing thousands of workers and barring them from any future federal employment. But “the centennial was a huge success; something very good happened,” Imperato says. “Unique populations started becoming aware of the tragedy, fascinated by its history.”

These days, Imperato get calls from students from all over the country asking her about the fire. The Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and labor union disputes in Wisconsin all played a role in re-igniting the need for collective bargaining. “The centennial was an opportunity to reflect on this critically important event in our history—maybe people were able to hear that history for the first time because of all the upheaval happening present day,” she says. The centennial also provided an opportunity to recognize elevator operator Zito, who died a pauper, an unknown hero. He has now been honored by the coalition, and credited for his heroic efforts.

Chalk fades, like memory. “But the following year we return, insisting on the memory of those lost young workers,” notes Sergel. “It depends on the community to keep it alive. For people to say, ‘Never again.’”

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