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Lock, Stock, and History

The Tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire —- 103 Years Ago Today

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of  Manhattan’s Asch Building (now known as the Brown Building) and specialized in producing  shirtwaists, a women’s blouse popular during the later 1800’s and early 1900’s.  A thriving business, the factory was founded and run by immigrants Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, and most of the factory’s employees were also Jewish and Italian immigrant women who were in their teens and early twenties.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was state of the art for the early 1900’s, with the best machines, indoor heating, plumbing, electricity, and sanitation.  Many other factories of the time were little more than cold, filthy sweatshops.  While the Triangle Factory was the best of the day, it was severely lacking in safety standards that we would consider routine today.  There was no fire alarm, a poorly maintained fire escape, poor entry and egress routes, and no fire safety equipment such as fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems.  In fact the only fire prevention tools in the factory were a dozen red pails filled with water set off to the sides.  The worst safety hazard of the factory was a direct result of a management decision.  One of the owners, Max Blanck, was constantly worried that his employees would steel shirts, fabric, or thread, pilfering his company and costing him  money.  As a result during work shifts the main entrance-ways to the factory were locked and the women’s bags and purses were searched as they left.

At around 4:45 PM on March 11, 1911, a fire started in a scrap bin located on the eighth floor, most likely due to a smoldering match or cigarette.  As the fire grew all other floors were evacuated with a warning by telephone. The ninth floor however was not connected by phone with the rest of the building and there was no alarm system.  The only warning of fire was when the fire reached the ninth floor itself.  There were only four escape routes, an outside fire escape which was broken and left unmaintained, two freight elevators, and the main entrance way which was locked.  Terrified employees gathered at the elevator and fire escape.  The elevators, however, could only hold so many per trip. The two elevator operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo made three trips up to the ninth floor.  However, as people became desperate they pried open the elevator doors and jumped into the shaft, buckling the elevators and making the inoperable. Some jumped down an empty elevator shaft to their deaths. The rickety fire escape was a different matter altogether. Rusty, warped, and broken, it couldn’t hold the many people trying to escape the factory. As more people gathered on the old structure it buckled and collapsed spilling 20 women to their deaths 100 ft below.  The main entrance way remained locked as the shop foreman had already escaped taking the key with him.  Desperately trapped women pounded on the doors for it to open, but to no avail.

Those who could not escape either died of asphyxiation, smoke inhalation, or were burned to death.  The fire department responded but found that their tallest ladders only reached to the sixth floor.  Outside a large crowd of bystanders watched the chaos, one reported the fates of those who chose not to burn to death,

"Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies. The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines."

The fire caused the death of 146 people, 129 women and 17 men.  16 charred bodies were found at the locked front door.  Later that night and the next day the police held a viewing of the victims so that they could be identified by family members.  Some were burned so badly that they were almost unrecognizable.  Six were left unidentified.  The oldest victim was an Italian immigrant named Providencia Panno who was 43, the youngest were two 13 year old girls, Kate Leone and “Sara” Rosaria Maltese.

The response to the tragedy was immediate.  The State of New York created a commission to investigate the safety conditions of factories.  The commission identified 200 other factories that had unsafe and hazardous working conditions.  This led to some of the first workplace safety laws including the installation of fire extinguishers, sprinkler systems, and fire alarms, better sanitary conditions, a better system of egress and emergency escape routes, fireproofing requirements, child labor laws, and maximum working hours.  In the next two years 60 new work safety laws were enacted.  The New York fire department also reformed, creating new methods and new equipment to better deal with New York’s taller buildings. 

The two factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris  were charged with negligent manslaughter, but were acquitted.  Later they were lost in civil court and were ordered to pay $75 per victim for negligence.  They later received $60,000 for damages in an insurance claim, which they used to repair their factory.  In 1913 Max Blanck was charged a $20 fine for once again locking his factory doors.

Today the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire remains the deadliest industrial accident in New York history and the second deadliest industrial accident in American history.

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