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One of the major fires that affected safety and health history occurred in New York City on Saturday, March 25, 1911. That tragedy that took 146 lives and its associated publicity helped lead to changes that were essential to improve fire protection. There were 52 similar fires in New York City in the garment industry that same year, but none had the catastrophic and sad results as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. This fire caused significant changes at many levels, such as design standards, fire protection systems, fire extinguishing systems, exiting, operational practices. This fire found many ways to place blame for United States fire protection practices that were far behind the rest of the world.

The Asch Building

The fire occurred on a Saturday in the Asch Building. The building was ten stories tall on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, very near but not facing the 8-acre Washington Square Park in Manhattan. Surrounding it on two sides was a larger building that faced Washington Square Park and housed New York University and the American Book Company.

Joseph J. Asch owned the Asch Building, which sat on a 100 by 100 foot lot. The architect was Julius Franke, who filed plans for the building in early 1900 and gained construction approval by July that year. Construction was completed in January 1901 at a cost of $400,000. The building was 135 feet tall and standards at that height allowed for wooden trim, wooden window frames and wooden floors. Had it been one story taller, standards would have required metal trim, metal window frames and stone or concrete floors.

The interior area of each floor was 10,000 square feet. Standards required one staircase for the first 2,500 square feet, an additional staircase for the next 2,500 square feet and one additional staircase for each additional 5,000 square feet. The standards requiring stairs reflected the area of the floors and did not reflect the number of stories or the number of workers in the building. One staircase faced Greene Street and had windows between floors. It also had an exit to the roof. The other faced Washington Place and had no windows and no roof exit. During construction an inspector found the design to have only two enclosed staircases with steps 34 inches wide and tapered at turns. The architect argued for an exception, since the design also provided for a fire escape that ended as a third exit. Having a fire escape was discretionary.

The Asch Building, New York City Garment District

The Asch Building, New York City Garment District

Standards required with some discretion that factory doors open outwardly. They were not to be locked or bolted during working hours. Because of the stairs designs, the doors for the stairs in the Asch Building opened inwardly.

The building design included two pair of elevators on opposite corners of the building. One pair was for freight and one pair for passengers. It is estimated that the passenger elevators were about 5 feet by 7 feet (35 square feet) and the freight elevators were about 7 feet by 7 feet (49 square feet). Using an estimate of 2.2 square feet per person, the maximum space capacity of the elevators were approximately 15 person and 20 persons, respectively. This would be the maximum number of people who could travel to the ground floor per trip.

There was no standard requiring sprinklers in New York City factory buildings. The Asch Building did not have sprinklers. There was a 5,000 gallon tank for water on the roof and the building had 259 emergency water pails distributed among the 10 floors, typically hanging on the walls and filled with water.

As the owner, Mr. Asch, reported after the fire, his building was “fire proof.” His building had complied with all of the standards prescribed by New York City. In October 1910 a fire inspector toured the building and found the stairs and fire escape to be “good” and the building to be “fireproof.”

The Triangle Workplace

Prior to 1840, most clothing was hand made using hand- completed stitches. Then came the invention of the lock- stitch sewing machine that completely changed clothing manufacturing. Another invention for the industry was the cutter’s knife, a cutting device that allowed an operator to cut through many layers of cloth at the same time. New York City became a hub for clothing manufacturing and marketing by the garment industry.

Triangle Waistshirt Company Sign at 8th Floor

Triangle Waistshirt Company Sign at 8th Floor

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was also known as the Triangle Waist Company. It occupied the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building, where it made unlined cotton women’s blouses or shirts, often ornamented, known as waists or shirtwaists. Typically, manufacturing occupied “loft” spaces of the buildings in Manhattan. There were advantages in rent and insurance. However, a primary advantage was the high ceilings and open space on floors. One standard required 250 cubic feet per occupant. With the high ceilings one could crowd many workers on an open floor.

Examples of Shirtwaists

Examples of Shirtwaists

The Company employed about 500 people in its operations. Most of them were young girls and women, some as young as 14 years of age. Many were immigrants and some did not speak English. Typical pay was $3 per week plus 15 cents per hour for overtime. One of the top craft persons (a pattern maker) earned $22 per week. Payday was Saturday at the end of the workday.

The eighth floor contained the cutting department and some sewing operations for about 200 employees. The cutters worked at tables where skilled cutters arranged and then sliced several layers of fabric at once to match a pattern placed on top of the layers. The tables were 40 inches high. Boards surrounded the table legs to form a bin for scraps. There was about a 10 inch space between the side boards and the table surface that allowed cutters to push scraps into the bin area under the tables. There were five long cutting tables that ran north-south in the room. Two additional cutting tables extended along the north wall that contained window access to the fire escape. Above the cutting tables were wires from which cutters hung patterns that were not in use. The remainder of the floor area contained five more long tables used for sewing, arranged similar to those on the ninth floor.

The ninth floor contained the sewing department. It had the highest concentration of workers, about 300. Most sewed the pre-cut fabric into finished products. There were 240 sewing machines. There were eight rows of two, 75 foot long tables facing each other, with 15 machines per table. The tables were 42 inches high and 40 inches wide. Between the tables were 10 inch wide troughs. Below a trough was a driving axle that powered the sewing machines by means of a leather belt reaching each machine. Each operator controlled the machine’s sewing action with a treadle operated with their feet. Operators sat at chairs and leaned over the table. Next to each operator was a wicker basket that contained a bundle of work to be completed.

The tenth floor contained a variety of functions of the Shirtwaist Company. Approximately 60 people worked on this floor doing pressing, packing, shipping, administrative and executive operations. There was also a showroom for sales. About 40 garment pressers worked at tables along the east side of the room. The area used for packing and shipping had many hanging garments along with cardboard and wooden boxes. At the Greene Street stairway at this level there was a fixed ladder to the roof.
As was common at the time, the Company had not conducted any fire drills for employees in preparation for a potential fire.

Fire Origins and Progress

The workday typically ended at 4:45 p.m. The watchman on the eighth floor recalled that he positioned himself at the partition near the Greene Street stairs and rang the quitting bell. His job was to inspect every girl’s purse as they left.

The Central Fire Department records show receiving an alarm at 4:30 p.m. They also received two fire alarms from the box at the Asch Building at 4:45 and 4:45 1⁄2 p.m. along with two telephone calls about that time.

Eighth Floor

Asch Building - Eighth Floor

Asch Building – Eighth Floor

The fire originated on the eighth floor in a scrap bin under one of the cutting tables. Several sources suggest the ignition was from a cigarette. The bin contained a lot of accumulated fabric cuttings. A contractor removed all the cutting scrap about every two months, which usually involved about a ton of material.

Near the exit, one of the employees smelled something burning. At the second cutting table from the exit area she could see red flames coming from the slot between the table and the boards that formed the collection bin under the table. Cutters began throwing pails of water onto the flames. The pails hung on the walls, positioned for potential fires. The efforts had little or no effect on the fire. Soon remaining employees were shouting “fire!” Smoke quickly filled the room. It was only a short time and flames were reaching the ceiling and beginning to consume fabric, tables, partitions and anything combustible. The heat quickly built up and windows began to break. For some employees clothing caught on fire.

There was a hose hanging in the Greene Street stairwell, connected to the tank of water on the roof. However, when pulled into the room, it had no pressure and no water. At least three men tried to make it work with no success. Those remaining worked to get the girls out through the two stairwells on each end of the room. Someone opened the windows that gave access to the fire escape and some sought an exit that way.

One employee who operated an internal telephone and other communication equipment tried to warn those on the ninth and tenth floors. Her attempt to reach the ninth floor failed, but she was able to alert the tenth floor to a fire on the eighth floor.

Ninth Floor

Asch Building - 9th Floor

Asch Building – 9th Floor

The people on the ninth floor did not get any warning about the fire that began on the eighth floor. Because it had the highest number of employees and because of the lack of notice, the 300 people working on the ninth floor fared the worst in escaping the fire. In fact, a very high level of panic ensured.

The protocol at the end of the work day on the ninth floor was much the same as that on the eighth floor. After distributing the pay envelopes for the week, the forelady rang the quitting bell located near the freight elevators. The sewing machines were shut down and the operators got up and moved to depart through the tight aisles.

There are many, many individual stories from this floor, just like those on the other two floors. The references tell many of those stories. Some ended up well. Some were extremely scary. Some were sad and others were very sad.

The first worker to leave sought to exit down the Greene Street stairs. He quickly learned of the fire on the eighth floor. When he sought to returned to the ninth floor to locate his sister, a fireman stopped him and ordered him to continue down the stairs.

The flames quickly reached the ninth floor. Not only did they pass upward through the vertical stairwells, the heat from the flames that had broken the eighth floor windows also broke the ninth floor windows and allowed the flames and heat to enter. Smoke built up rapidly and the room quickly darkened.

Some sought to exit through the Washington Street stairs, but found the exit door locked. No one could budge it to get it open. The number of people approaching the door increased. Someone was able to break the glass in the door. Someone tried to toss a pail of water through the window to diminish the flames coming up the stairway. All attempts to exit through the Washington Street stairway from the ninth floor failed.

Some sought to exit using the Washington Street elevators. The elevator operators worked as quickly as possible to make vertical trips to get more workers. At each trip, the cars fill rapidly to almost double their normal capacity. Some estimated that the elevators made as many as seven or eight trips. At the last one or two trips, a few standing at the door to the shaft either grabbed a supporting cable and rode down on top of the occupants or ended up falling on top of the car roof. Some plunged down the shaft after the car was several stories lower, which damaged the car and ended its service.
Some employees had opened the windows to the fire escape. The number increased and allowed a few to escape to the ground, but the total number on the narrow stairs increased. Before long the fire escape collapsed dropping the occupants to the ground level.

Because of the panic, screams and fear by many occupants of the ninth floor, many found the only way out after their clothing and hair had caught on fire was by jumping from the sills of the broken windows. Their bodies left a not-to- be-forgotten thud at the sidewalk as they landed. Virtually all who jumped died upon impact from the nine story fall. Some policemen located near the Asch Building entrance had to keep those seeking to exit the ground floor from having a body fall on them.

 

Tenth Floor

Asch Building - 10th Floor

Asch Building – 10th Floor

Occupants on the tenth floor fared much better than did those on the eighth and ninth floors. One of the reasons was that they had a warning from the person on the eighth floor operating the internal communications equipment. The tenth floor got a notice that did not reach the ninth floor when the fire started on the eighth floor. In fact when the notice reached the tenth floor, an executive person called the fire department on a telephone tied to an external system. They quickly learned that an alarm had already been sent to the New York City fire headquarters.

Another reason tenth floor occupants escaped was that fire and smoke blocked descent down either of the two stairwells to the ground floor. Some tenth floor occupants were able to ride an elevator to a safe exit.

Another reason was those on the tenth floor were better able to communicate and reduce the panic level. However, a goodly number of tenth floor occupants helped others use the stairway to the roof to escape the heat and smoke buildup. One occupant stood on a workbench and broke a skylight to the roof hoping to escape that way.

The roof level provided a temporary escape, but no direct exit to the ground level. Fortunately, some professors and students in the very adjacent building housing New York University saw the fire and sprang into action. Some found ladders left by painters and other ladders to bridge the space between the buildings for which the roof levels were not the same heights. With collaboration among the occupants on both sides, Triangle employees were able to escape to the other building. Overall, even after rescuing a girl who had fainted as the last person on the roof, all tenth floor employees escaped.

The Worker Responses

The fire expanded rapidly, because the flimsy material used to manufacture shirtwaist clothing was cotton and was quite flammable. Smoke built up quickly in the rooms. Workers quickly panicked in deciding how to escape. The normal exiting procedures were interrupted and there had been no fire drills to prepare workers for a quick exit.

Employees scrambled to find an exit and escape the fire. Some were successful, while others were not. The result was the sad stories for both those who made it and those who did not. There was near pandemonium at several exit points.

The elevator operators responded to a call from the tenth floor. Employees clawing at the glass panel on the eighth floor elevator stop saw the elevator continue on to a higher floor. However, on the way down, it stopped at the eighth floor and far more that could board the elevator attempted to do so. One girl leaped and landed on top of those already in the elevator before the doors could close. Those remaining had to find alternate routes of escape. During the fire, the elevator made only limited trips to the upper floors. In each trip it simply did not have the capacity to carry very many to safety at the ground level.

The stairwells quickly filled with girls seeking to exit to the ground floor. However, a couple collapsed or fainted and cause a serious backup.

As many as 30 girls on the eighth floor jammed the area around the Washington Place stairway. They could not get the door open. In part that was caused by the fact that it opened inward. One of the men fought to get to the door and get it open. He finally got it open, but the group of girls pushed their way into the narrow, spiral staircase. The flow stopped quickly as one of the girls fainted and created a blockage. With help, a patrolman who was working his way up the stairs was able to get her to return to consciousness and unplugged the stairs.

On the eighth floor a machinist, Louis Brown, opened the windows that led to the fire escape. A few of the girls climbed through the windows to the fire escape and began to make their way down. At the sixth floor, one of them broke a window so they could escape back into the building where there was no fire and then gain access to the staircase to the ground floor.

Some girls turned to the windows to escape. A few jumped the eight or nine stories to their death. The experience for observers at the ground level was devastating. Time after time they heard a huge “thud” as another body struck the sidewalk and was lifeless. By then police who positioned themselves at the first floor entrance would not let those coming down the spiral staircase exit the building for fear that they would be killed by a falling body.

While flames continued to grow the production manager, Samuel Bernstein, worked to get employees out. He had pulled a couple of girls from the window and got them onto the staircase. When he returned, he was one of two left. He got the communications lady to the staircase and made one last check. The smoke was so thick that he could not see 15 feet to the staircase. He crawled on his hands and knees to be the last one from the eighth floor. He had no idea how many remained on the two upper floors.

The Emergency Response

A number of people in the area around the Asch Building heard an unusual sound. It was the bursting of windows on the eighth floor and allowing smoke and flames to reach out. As a result, people gathered quickly on Washington Place in dismay. One had the presence of mind to trigger a nearby fire alarm at 4:45 pm. It was not long before the bystanders saw an object come flying down from the eighth floor window. Just before it struck the ground, they realized it was the body of a girl who jumped from those windows. A patrolman who entered the lobby of the Asch Building quickly realized that the elevators were at the top floors and started to run up the stairway to see how he could assist. About the sixth floor he had to begin working his way past girls coming down. When he reached the eighth floor he began to get employees, some with clothing on fire, away from the broken windows. He returned to the sixth floor and found people pounding on the stairway entrance. It was locked. With much effort he was able to break it open to find people who had come partway down the fire escape to the sixth floor seeking a way out. He returned to the street level to find the first fire engines and police wagons arriving. The unit with the longest ladder arrived and firemen quickly raised it. The surrounding crowd yelled to raise it further, but it was only long enough to reach the sixth floor. Someone tried to jump from the ninth floor to the top of the ladder manned by a fireman. However, the 30 foot free fall was way too much to make a rescue possible from the ladder. Eventually, the fire department was able to connect to the Asch Building standpipe, and provide water to the hoses found in the stairways. Then the fire was brought under control and extinguished in less than half an hour. Because the structure was “fire proof,” the structure was intact. The contents were the main items destroyed. Some observers took blankets and tarpaulins from their horse-drawn wagons and made temporary catch nets. They quickly found that a falling body simply tore the temporary net from their hands and did nothing to stop a fall. Then firemen who started using their life nets quickly learned of the same result. The nets were simply ineffective because of fall heights. Other firemen quickly laid out fire hose, connected them to hydrants and began to spray water toward the eight, ninth and tenth floors to extinguish the fire and to cool the building. No fire equipment in the New York arsenal was able to cope with this fire.

The Aftermath

Medical men arrived, mainly from nearby hospitals. They began working through the bodies lying on the sidewalk to determine if they were alive or dead. In a few cases, they encountered someone who was screaming in agony. Some had severe burns. Those who showed signs of life were sent via ambulance for medical care. During the early stages of the disaster and the falling bodies, a call had gone out for ambulances. The local hospitals were quickly overloaded treating broken bones, burns and shock.

Not long after the fire was under control, a huge crowd of people formed around the Asch Building. Some were curious onlookers. Some were family members or acquaintances who had not seen their Shirtwaist employees return from work. The situation was chaotic and police had difficulty keeping people distant from the immediate area around the building.
Across Greene Street police laid a large, dark-red canvas. Pairs of police picked up the water-soaked, often burned bodies at the base of the Asch Building, carried them one- by-one and laid them on the canvas.

There the bodies laid as the police covered them with tarps while they awaited coffins. An order had been sent to the city morgue for nearly 100 coffins, but only 65 were available. Additional coffins were located at the Metropolitan Hospital on Blackwell Island in the East River. After placing bodies into coffins, police loaded them onto ambulances and patrol wagons. Because the city morgue was not large enough to hold all of the bodies, a temporary morgue was created at a pier on East Twenty-sixth Street.

As the evening settled in, a team of firemen began a search for victims throughout the Asch Building. Some encountered bodies lying on the floor on the eighth and ninth floors and even seated at a sewing machine. By evening other firemen rigged temporary hoists from the roof. The bodies were wrapped a few at a time in fire nets and tarps and lowered to the ground with the aid of flood lights from fire trucks on Greene Street and Washington Place.

A group of firemen worked on the results of the collapsed fire escape. They discovered why it collapsed. The load of people escaping at the eighth and ninth levels overloaded the structure. One reason was each floor had metal shutters held in place by heavy metal bars. At the eighth level, the bar got stuck so that no one could pass the shutters. Another reason was the fire extending from the windows at the tenth floor prevented anyone from moving upward. The number of people on the fire escape got so large that the structure failed and the screaming mass of humanity fell to the ground level behind the Asch Building.

A few firemen working at the ground floor heard faint cries for help. The sound came from below. In the dark basement they found a man with multiple severe wounds and burns at the base of the elevator shaft, immersed in the cold water to his neck. They took him to a local hospital.

By 11:30 pm the police were convinced that they had completed searching the Asch Building and recovered all bodies. However, after pumping the waist-deep water from the basement, two more bodies were found that had crashed through the glass block sidewalk in front of the building.

As bodies were moved, each was given an identification. The police removed personal items, such as jewelry, and placed the items into containers marked with the same identification. The purpose was to potentially use the items for identification of the bodies.

The procession of coffins from near the Asch Building to the pier continued well into the night. Badly burned bodies remained in coffins, while the other bodies were covered, placed in an orderly fashion on the floor of the pier.

Throughout the ordeal of the fire and its aftermath, there were many family and friends of Triangle employees searching for their loved ones at the scene, at the police station nearby, at the temporary morgue, at the hospitals, and at any site where they may have gone. These family members and close friends were distraught, emotionally drained and often in a severe panic condition. Their searches were often in vain. Understandably, they were difficult for police and other officials to deal with.

The Public Response

During the night all of the bodies recovered from the disaster had been moved to the temporary morgue. The day after the fire, a Sunday, the neighborhood around the Asch Building quickly filled with the curious. Police had difficulty controlling the crowd of thousands of onlookers seeking a glimpse of the scene. The crowd moved in slow motion and slowly passed by the site. The curious, along with some family, friends and Shirtwaist employees who escaped, continued the visitation all day. The crowd brought all kinds. Some were prepared to party as if this were some kind of celebration. Some vendors sought to exploit the curious. They had quickly packaged very cheap rings, ear rings and other items seeking to find buyers for souvenirs that they claimed came from the victims. The crowd of curious continued for a few more days. Near the morgue a crowd also formed the night of the fire. Police sought to manage the crowd. By 11:30 pm the coroner’s staff completed placing of bodies onto the pier floor for potential identification. The first person allowed into the temporary morgue area was an old woman in a shawl. Part way down the lines of bodies, she stopped and identified her loved one, the first identification. The identification process continued most of the week and was painful for many. The police could not tell who had legitimate reasons for walking through the bodies and who did not. They allowed small groups into the area at a time. The first day the admission rate rose to one hundred allowed every minute, a total of six thousand an hour. The waiting crowd did not diminish. The police sought ways to manage and implemented a procedure by which a potential visitor had to give the name of someone they were looking for along with a description. That greatly reduced the number of people in the crowd but did not stop the curious. In some cases, people in their finest Sunday dress arrived and sought to use their influence to gain access, but the police quickly recognized such tactics and turned them away. By early Sunday evening close to 200,000 had come to the temporary morgue and half had made an entry. Some valid visitors became hysterical when locating their family member. One woman ran to the end of the pier wanting to commit suicide by jumping into the river, but an official stopped her. They became aware of such potential behavior and boarded up the open end of the pier. Bodies on display for identification. The progress of identifying victims continued effectively. What started with 136 bodies late Saturday night, diminished slowly. By early Sunday morning 43 bodies were identified. The crowd and process continued through Monday. By that evening 28 bodies remained to be identified. By Tuesday night 20 bodies remained for identification. By Wednesday night, 16 and by Thursday night just 14. A week after the fire only 7 remained unknown. Some of the methods used to establish identification of victims were unique. Many recognized familiar features rather than the person. In one case the ring from the victim’s finger was the key. For another case, a girl saw a ring on the victim’s finger, but asked if there was a watch. There was and in it she found her photo, since she had given it to her fiancé who was the victim. A man who was seeking his young daughter made her identification by inspecting the heel of her one shoe. He had recently had it repaired and it had a plate that he recognized. A girl sought her mother and was able to identify her by looking at how the hair was braided. She had done her mother’s hair the day before her last day at work. In another case a nurse at a hospital recognized a woman who had frequently come to the hospital to visit her child. A mother recognized her daughter by the way she had mended her daughter’s stocking the day before the fire.

The City Response

Placing the Blame

The fire had barely been extinguished before some sought to place blame. The first official response was finger- pointing, both outward and inward, by a variety of government agencies from the state level down to internal city agencies. All spokespersons stated how much they deplored the disaster and the harm to individuals and families. Then there were investigations, initially by the Coroner, the District Attorney, the Fire Commissioner, and the Acting Building Department Superintendent.

The New York state governor was one of the first to speak out. He stated that the city alone had responsibility to deal with the problem and the state did not have jurisdiction.

The State Labor Department had previously dealt with a complaint regarding the fire escape. It had determined that according to regulations, the workers were to have 250 cubic feet of air space and that was provided for Triangle employees. They noted that courts had determined that the State Labor Department did not have jurisdiction regarding fire escapes. The agency referred any adverse findings to the applicable local Superintendent of Buildings, in this case the one for the borough of Manhattan.

The Coroner insisted that the Building Department had responsibility for compliance with the building law. He was angered by the fire escape on the Asch Building. Not only was he upset with the deficiencies, but after the Asch Building was constructed, the ground level space at its base became enclosed completely by later construction of an adjacent building.

The Acting Building Superintendent stated that his agency had no police powers to enforce rules that are challenged in court and building owners usually won the arguments. He also complained that he had 47 inspectors who had to inspect about 50,000 buildings, of which the Fire Department had declared nearly 14,000 as dangerous. In addition, the borough faced about $100 million in new construction each year. Furthermore, it was hard to get owners to upgrade to newer standards for buildings but were found in compliance when they were built.

The Fire Chief reported that he had predicted a loss like the just-experienced one because fire escapes are not put on buildings. In addition he felt they were not desirable for high rise buildings, such as the Asch Building, because normal occupants would find their height very frightening.

The District Attorney complained about the stairwells. His first complaint involved the fact that access doors should open outward. However, the architect noted that the law says “where practical.” For the Asch Building, the stairwell doors opened inward. The architect said there was no particular width required for stairs and the design “accommodated what was suppose to be the traffic of the building.” He argued that at the time of the design, the Asch Building was not intended for a factory and no law governed the dimensions of the stairways.
As one report concluded regarding the dangers of the loft shops: “the crux of the situation is that there is no direct responsibility. It is divided and rests nowhere.”

Other Responses

The responses involving the citizens of New York City were rather overwhelming.

Quickly after the fire, efforts arose to collect money to aid the survivors and victims along with families. The aid was not only local but extended in many cases to other countries because an employee was supporting family members who had not yet come to the U.S.

An emergency committee began meeting already on the Monday after the fire. It drew on a variety of religious, charity and labor organizations. One action was to complete a personal contact with every survivor or the families of victims. Most had never received any charitable assistance and did not seek it.

The appeal for funds resulted in overwhelming donations. Some sizeable donations came from companies and wealthy people, while many small amounts came from individuals. Some groups created raffles and other schemes to raise money. Overall, the effort raised $120,000, a huge sum for that time.

Another kind of public response involved the funerals of victims. In some cases, burial was very private, limited to immediate family members. Some funerals had no attendees. However, others drew crowds and huge processions. Some funerals were extremely simple, especially those for the nameless victims, and others were on a grand scale, organized by labor groups. In fact one funeral organized by the Women’s Trade Union League, drew an estimated crowd of more than 100,000 people. Surely, the sympathy of the citizens was on exhibit.

Trial of the Owners

By April of 1911, the two owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were indicted by a grand jury and charged with manslaughter, first and second degree . The trial began in early December and lasted about three weeks. It involved 155 witnesses, 105 for the state and 52 for the defense. The attorneys argued over many details of what happened and what led to the death of the 146 victims. Arguments involved the locked stairway door, the poor decisions of the employees on potential escape, the failure of the fire escape and even divine providence. The defendants explained the loss of shirtwaists from inventory and their need to protect their property by locking the exits, even though they admitted that the loss in one case did not exceed $25. The public interest was fueled by the dramatic testimony of victims.

In the end, the jury ultimately found the owners not guilty because the jury instructions involved the owners not knowing at the time of the fire whether the door was locked. The issue was not whether it was locked, but who knew it at a specific time.

The response for some observers who were victims or their family members was somewhat predictable. The cry became “Murderer!”

The Impacts for Society

In summary, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire involved two long-term issues that slowly became resolved to some extent.

One issue was improving fire protection. Over time the city enacted new laws to resolve that. The changes were not without controversy. They changed enforcement authorities. They changed design standards. Slowly the deficiencies of the Asch Building and the Triangle occupancy were improved.

The other issue involved safety in the workplace. Like many other manufacturers, the Triangle company found high-ceiling, open space attractive for creating crowded operations with many hazards. The labor unions for the clothing industry had created a major strike only a few years before the fire, but it resulted in few safety improvement. That effort continued after the fire. State and local laws and regulations for workplace safety were improved. One example was the Merchants’ Association Fire Prevention Bill (see March 10, 1911, Fire and Water Engineering reference) introduced in New York City already in May 1911. It involved alarm systems, storage of combustibles, effective exiting, adequate fire escapes, resolution of fire protection authority, inspection of buildings, and many other factors. Another example is the “Model Safety Law” developed by the National Civic Federation in 1913 and designed to form a part of the factory laws. It covered a wide range of fire protection and workplace safety considerations. It appeared in the February 1913 issue of Insurance Engineering. The committee crafting the law involved labor organizations, industry associations, state and city agencies, and private companies.

The effort to resolve the main failures identified in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire took years to resolve locally, at state levels and nationally to a suitable level.

Even after more than 100 years following this event, the fire remains a watershed moment in the history of safety and health.

References

Overall, the Triangle Fire resulted in numerous books, publications, dramas, and music to commemorate those who were victims and their families and friends.  Two books were primary sources for this article intended to provide a brief version of the event and its aftermath.

  • Leon Stein, The Triangle Fire, Carroll & Graf Publishers and Quicksilver Books, New York, 1962.
    This account of the fire and resulting actions is very factual and contains detailed recollections of many first hand victims and observers.
  • David Von Drehle, Triangle – The Fire That Changed America, Grove Press, New York, 2003.
    This book creates a detailed background to the clothing industry and those who worked in it as well as conditions for those living at the time. It also details many aspects of the fire and its consequences.

There have been about a dozen books written about the Triangle Fire. Several are out of print. The following is a list of available books:

  • Leigh Benin, Rob Linne, Adriene Sosin, Joel Sosinsky and others, The New York City Triangle Factory Fire (Images of America), Arcadia Publishing, 2011.
  • Jo Ann Argersinger, Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.
  • Katie Marsico, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Its Legacy of Labor Rights, Benchmark Books, 2009.
  • Brenda Lange, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (Great Historic Disasters), Chelsea House Publications, 2008.
  • Charity Barger, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Lulu.com, 2008.

In addition there have been more than a dozen books on the Triangle Fire written for children and young adult readers.
There were articles and accounts found in publications of that period. Some relevant sources are referenced in the articles that follows. Many of these articles paint broader fire protection issues at the time of the Triangle Fire. A few examples of reports from that period are the following:

  • (The article has no title but addresses fire protection issues for the Tirangle Shirtwaist Fire.) Insurance Engineering, Vol 21, No. 4, April 1911, pp. 243-262. !“Fire Escape Development – Stair Towers for Factory Buildings,” Insurance Engineering, Vol. 21, No. 4, April 1911, pp. 272-277.
  • Henry A. Fiske, “Wireglass Windows,” Insurance Engineering, Vol. 21, No. 4, April 1911, pp. 308-314. !“New York on Trial; Not a Waist Company,” Insurance Engineering, Vol 23, No 1, January 1912, p. 36. !“Committee on Safety of New York City – Announcement of Its Purpose,” Insurance Engineering, Vol. 23, No. 2, March 1912, pp.160-161.
  • Underwriters Report on Asch Building Fire, Fire and Water Engineering, April 12, 1911, p. 237.
    !R. Waldo, Fire Commissioner, “To Protect Life in New York’s Fireproof Buildings,” Fire and Water Engineering, April 19, 1911, pp.264-265.
  • “Merchants’ Association Fire Prevention Bill,” Fire and Water Engineering, Wednesday, May 10, 1911, pp. 318- 319.
    ”Model Safety Law,” Insurance Engineering, Volume 25, No. 2, February 1913, pp. 121-126.
  • J. Bryon Deacon, Disasters and the American Red Cross in Disaster Relief, Russell Safe Foundation, New York, 1918, pp. 106-149.

    Culture
    Like many other tragic events in safety and health history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire inspired many cultural elements. Refer the to Wikipedia.org reference above for a comprehensive list of items found in music, theater and dance, literature, and film and television productions.

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