It was 103 years ago today when one of the most tragic events during America’s industrial era occurred. In History Today: Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City.
Isaac Harris and Max Blanck were the owners of the Triangle factory which was located in downtown Manhattan, inside the Asch Building. The Triangle factory occupied the top three floors of the ten story building and was indicative to what a sweatshop is today. Most of the workers were teen-aged, immigrant women who did not speak any English. The working conditions were hot and cramped, crowded with employees and work stations that were lined up and crammed in. Access to the factories three floors were by four elevators and two sets of stairways which led down to the street. This is where one, in hindsight, can see the beginning of the possible disaster if tragedy struck as it did that fateful day.
One of the stairways was locked from the outside in order to prevent theft from the employees and the other stairway had a door that only opened inward. Only one of the four elevators that accessed the top three floors of the factory actually worked and that could only hold twelve people at a time. To add to the pending catastrophe, the fire escape was by no way near up to standard and could only support the weight of a couple of women at a time.
The Triangle factory owners also owned the Diamond Waist Company factory which had two fires; one in 1907 and the other in 1910. The Triangle factory itself already had a fire in 1902, all fires happened before business hours and it looked like Harris and Blanck had started the fires in order to get the insurance policy money. Something that was common practice back in the day. Though the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was not caused by Blanck and Harris, neither of the owners took any safety precautions or installed any fire sprinkler systems in case the owners needed to set fire to the factory, once again, for the insurance money. History Today: Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in NYC, reveals that Harris and Blanck were, what many call, slave drivers today.
Even though a strike was started in 1909 by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union demanding shorter hours and a basic work schedule with higher wages, Blanck and Harris were one of the few manufacturers that refused to acknowledge the union and instead hired police “thugs” to imprison any of the women involved in the strike. The two shady manufacturers also paid politicians off in order for the public servants to look the other way.
It was on a Saturday afternoon on this day, March 25 in 1911 when a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch Building. There were 600 workers in the building at the time a rag bin had caught fire. The manager had grabbed the fire hose to dowse the flames but the valve was so rusty it was sealed shut and the hose itself was rotting away. The hysteria that ensued was mortifying. Everyone immediately scrambled towards the exits and the only elevator working at the time broke down after just four trips. This caused many women in a panic to throw themselves down the shafts to an inevitable death. Those who used the stairway which was locked to prevent theft were all burnt alive. Trapped women on the eighth floor started to jump out windows because the firemen ladder’s could only reach up to the seventh floor. The women, who were jumping in threes, landed unsafely as the firemen’s nets could not handle the weight of more than one body at a time. As firemen tried to control the blaze more problems arose when falling bodies would land on the hoses, crushing them causing the water flow to stop.
Alarmingly, both Harris and Blanck were on the top floor of the Asch Building during the time of the fire. They had escaped by going up to the roof and jumping over onto a neighboring building. By the time the fire was out there were 49 killed by the fire and about 100 dead from jumping down the elevator shaft or out the window.
On April 5, 1911 there were over 80,000 people who marched in protest against the horribly unsafe building conditions that led to the fire and the tragic deaths. Harris and Blanck were charged for manslaughter and put on trial but neither were convicted and both men walked free. However, because of the disaster, laws were put into place such as the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law that was put into effect that very October. History Today: Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that happened in New York City, to this day, is used as an example when developing laws and regulations to better protect the safety of all factory workers.
By Derik L. Bradshaw