American Tragedy: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

March 25, 1911. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was nearly ready to end work for the day. The Triangle Waist Company factory occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the 10-story Asch Building on the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in Manhattan.

factory
The Asch building in 1911

 That afternoon, the atmosphere was placid: it was Saturday, a short workday of just seven hours, and spring was in the air. At 4:45 p.m., a shout of “Fire!” caused a ripple of excitement among the Triangle workers, and they hastily pushed their chairs back from the long wooden tables where they worked, and mechanically headed toward the Greene Street doors.

Workers were required to exit every day through the Greene Street doors, where their bags were searched for stolen goods. But the exit wasn’t feasible: a wall of flames was on the other side of the door and smoke was already sifting beneath the doors, clouding the room.

interior
The 9th floor, post-fire

The crowd moved to the Washington Place exit, shoving aside boxes and piles of scraps along the way. Panic began to set in when the workers discovered the doors to the stairwell were locked.

firefighters

The fire spread quickly, feeding on oily floors and numerous scraps. Some workers remained calm, and waited at the windows for fire fighters to rescue them. Engine Company 72 and 33 arrived on the scene quickly, but the victims’ relief turned to despair when they saw the firefighters’ water streams and ladders reached no higher than the 7th floor. The fire was confined to the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors.

Rusty fire escape that collapsed

The last hope was extinguished when the single fire escape collapsed. Victims began to jump from the windows, but the weight and velocity of their bodies rendered the fire nets useless.

jumpers

In total, the fire claimed 146 victims, mostly working-class immigrant women working on the 9th floor. The victims, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, falling, or jumping to their deaths, ranged in age from 14 – 43.

fire chief croker
The horror of the tragedy was made worse by the knowledge that simple precautions could have prevented it.

The sentiment against Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the factory owners, was poisonous. Both men were indicted in April, and brought to trial on charges of manslaughter in December.

The case came to hinge on a single detail: did the owners know the doors were locked at the time of the fire?

 interior post-fire

The jury was out less than two hours, and Blanck and Harris were acquitted. The public was outraged, and the owners’ obvious lack of remorse further inflamed public passions.

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris
Max Blanck and Isaac Harris

One of the jurors told reporters later: “I believed that the Washington Place door… was locked at the time of the fire. But I could not make myself feel certain that Harris and Blanck knew that it was locked. And so, because the judge had charged us that we could not find them guilty unless we believed that they knew the door was locked then, I did not know what to do… Because so many of the witnesses on each side were lying… All I felt sure of was that the door had been locked… The key was usually in the door and that it was tied to it with a piece of string. So there was the thought in my mind that during the first rush for the door some panic-stricken girl might have turned the key in an effort to open it. And if that was so, then Harris and Blanck could not have known of it.”

Front page of the World

The following month, the Literary Digest printed an opinion which was representative of the way many considered the trial: “Perhaps the men on the jury had no thought of condoning murder, but that is what they did… There is another jury that considers the matter, and it is not made up alone of stricken relatives of the murdered women. It is made up of the entire working class… And the verdict of the great jury undoubtedly is that not only are Harris and Blanck guilty, but that the whole class to which they belong is guilty, and is foul with the blood of the workers.”

A deluge of civil suits followed the acquittal. Ultimately, Blanck and Harris settled in 1914, paying $75 per life lost.

photos
Triangle fire victims

Max Blanck remained defiant. He was cited for additional safety violations in 1913, including locking one of the doors of his factory during working hours, for which he received a fine and a warning.

The Triangle Waist Company closed in 1918, to the regret of no one.


Check out these excellent resources to learn more about the fire:

http://rememberthetrianglefire.org/

http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/index.html

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