Saturday, March 26, 2011

Today -100: March 26, 1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

A fire broke out in the top three floors of a 10-story building housing the Triangle Waist Company. The Asch Building, which had had four recent fires, had one fire escape, and that was an interior one, capable of supporting one person at a time; it saved no one. The exits were locked. The two owners, however, made it out by elevator immediately after the fire started. The elevator operators worked at evacuating people for as long as they could. Law students at the taller NYU building next door lowered ladders, fortuitously left by some painters, to the Asch Building, from which 120 people climbed to safety (the fire spread to NYU Law School, which I hadn’t known, doing a bit of damage). The Asch Building is still standing and is now owned by NYU.

The building was, the Times notes, fireproof, and the next day shows hardly any sign of the fire: “The walls are as good as ever; so are the floors; nothing is the worse for the fire except the furniture and 141 of the 600 men and girls that were employed in its upper three stories.” Some burned, some suffocated, some leaped to their deaths.

The NYT caption: One hour after this picture was taken two of the victims were discovered to be alive. (The story explains that the firemen, dealing with the fire, ignored the “heap of corpses” for an hour, only then finding a girl still alive in the middle of the heap. She died two minutes later.)

The fire started at 4:50, the end of the work day. Five minutes later, and no one would have been killed. A proper weekend would have helped too (March 25 was a Saturday).

Most of the company’s employees, and thus most of the dead, were foreign girls – Russians, Germans, Italians, Hungarians – who replaced the mostly Jewish girls who had unionized and struck in 1909-10 (this search link displays my posts on the strike, in which the Triangle Waist Company was especially intransigent). Some of the remaining Jewish employees were taking the sabbath off, but not many because it was payday. 123 of the 146 dead were women. Their average age was 19, and some were quite a bit younger.

NYT: “A thirteen-year-old girl hung for three minutes by her finger tips to the sill of a tenth floor window. A tongue of flame licked at her fingers, and she dropped to death.”
“At a ninth-floor window a man and a woman appeared. The man embraced the woman and kissed her. Then he hurled her to the street and jumped. Both were killed.”

“One girl jumped into a horse blanket held by firemen and policemen. The blanket ripped like cheesecloth, and her body was mangled almost beyond recognition.”

A NYT editorial begins: “The appalling disaster in this city last evening compels horror and pity rather than condemnation of any person or any system.” Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrongity wrong!

Cornell has a site on the fire. There are numerous books about the fire, including a surprising number of children’s and YA books, novels, and a graphic novel. I can recommend David Von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (2003).

The Triangle fire was the biggest workplace disaster in New York City until 9/11.

Stories not getting as much attention today -100 as they might have on another day -100: a steamer goes down in a storm off Vancouver, killing 26; a train wreck in Georgia kills ten.

Former (and future) French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau has written a movie.

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