The Triangle Factory Fire and Why It Matters Today
One hundred and six years ago, 146 young immigrant workers — three-quarters of them female — died on March 25, 1911 in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. It was the deadliest industrial accident in the history of New York City and one of the worst work disasters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
The value of the past is learning to avoid mistakes of the future. For that reason, we need to listen; we need to remember.
What Happened That Day
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory was located on floors 7-9 of what was known as the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in New York City. (The building is now the Brown Building of Science, part of NYU.)
Immigrant women, most only 16-23 years of age, worked six days a week making shirtwaists, a type of blouse that was popular in that day. Workers’ pay was based on a per piece basis, so they worked quickly and with concentration, scraps of fabric mounting up under the machines as no one could afford to take the time to clean up.
It was almost 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 25, when the fire broke out, probably from a carelessly tossed cigarette.
Worker Safety Never Considered
Notification of the fire primarily came to the workers via smell or flame. A bookkeeper on the eighth floor phoned management on the tenth floor to warn them to evacuate, but the floor workers had no such warning.
Exits from the work floors were limited. There were two sets of stairs, a fire escape (that did not go all the way to the ground) and two freight elevators. The women ran first to the stairways and discovered one already was engulfed in flames; the door to the other staircase was locked. (Factory workers were often locked in during work hours to keep them on the job and to prevent pilfering.)
The freight elevator operators attempted to make several runs up and down to rescue the women, but after a couple of runs, the women were so desperate they pried open the floor gates to the elevator and jumped into the shaft, hoping to ride on the top of the elevator to safety. The elevators could not bear the extra weight and could no longer go up for other victims.
The fire escape may have already been in poor repair, but even if it had been sound, it soon twisted under the heat of the fire.
That left the windows. Women crowded at the windows, first for air, and then hoping that they could be rescued. Fire engines, some of them horse-drawn, were powering to the area around the building, but as they raised the ladders, everyone in the building and on the street saw the problem: The ladders could extend only as high as the sixth floor. The hoses shot water at the fire, but the streams could barely reach the seventh floor.
In a scene of desperation that would be replicated at the World Trade Center 90 years later, the victims felt they had no other option — they held hands and jumped. The firemen’s nets proved inadequate to catch the jumpers, and most fell through to the sidewalk, dying quickly of their injuries.
Garment factory workers in New York City had struck only two years before (1909) for better working conditions and better pay. They made some inroads at the smaller shops but a big factory like the Triangle Company could afford to hold out longer than the workers. As a result, the workers’ concerns were never addressed until the fire.
Out of the ashes came modernization of the state’s labor laws, better oversight of workplaces by the fire department, and a stronger and more unified International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The American Society of Safety Engineers also was founded the following October.
And what happened to the factory owners? Because they had been notified of the fire, they went from their tenth floor offices to the roof and escaped to another building where they were able to descend to the street. Later, they were acquitted in the criminal trial against them because prosecutors were unable to prove beyond a doubt that they knew the exit doors were locked; they lost a subsequent civil suit and had to pay about $75 per deceased victim.
Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
That’s what Ruth Sergel, a New York filmmaker and activist, decided seven years ago (2004), when she created “Chalk,” an annual commemoration of the Triangle tragedy. Sergel worked from the list of names of those who died and located their addresses; she then gathers volunteers each year on the anniversary to write the victims’ names outside the buildings where they once lived.
From this beginning in 2004, Sergel has formed a group to commemorate the centennial, Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. The coalition includes about 120 organizations and they represent people across the nation. One cannot help but think of Margaret Mead: “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
All Lives Matter
We need to remember that throughout our society there are those whose voices are being ignored. Those who think our sweatshop days are behind us should know that a recent report by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 67 percent of Los Angeles garment factories and 63 percent of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. In Los Angeles, 98 percent of garment factories have serious health and safety issues.
But there are still other voices being ignored — from the union workers in Wisconsin to regular citizens who had the bad luck to live in the vicinity of the BP oil spill that occurred less than a year ago — to the illegal immigrant college students who had hoped the DREAM Act would give them a legitimate path to citizenship in the country they consider home.
We must remember that each of us has a responsibility to help provide voices for those whose concerns are not being heard.
We must remember that our country promises “freedom for all” but sometimes the voices of those in power — or those with money — are heard the most loudly.
Change should not have to come via the modern day equivalent of a Triangle Factory Fire. Pick your cause (there are many), and help those whose needs are not being heard. There is power in numbers.
For a complete list of activities throughout NYC and the nation, visit Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition to learn about talks, lectures, performances, and art exhibits.
For more details about the fire, see the online exhibit put up by the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University. The full story and many photographs can be viewed online.