The deaths of 146 immigrant workers — three-quarters of them female — occurred on March 25, 1911, in one tragic workplace catastrophe, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
The fire was the deadliest industrial accident in the history of New York City and one of the worst work disasters since mass production of products began. The tragedy eventually led to improvements in workplace safety, but it took many years.
What Happened That Day
The actual factory floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were located on floors 7-9 of what was known as the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. (The building is now the Brown Building of Science, part of NYU.) Each of the three factory floors were packed with sewing machines, cutting tables, and lots of fabric.
The workers themselves were young immigrant women, most only 16-23 years of age. Like other factory employees, they worked six days a week making shirtwaists, a type of blouse that was popular in that day. Their pay was based on a per piece basis, so speed was of the essence. Each woman worked quickly and with concentration. They let the scraps of fabric mount up under the machines as no one could afford to take the time to clean up.
On the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, the young women must have been feverishly trying to finish their work so they could go home and enjoy Saturday night and Sunday, their one day off. About 5 p.m. a fire broke out, probably from a carelessly tossed cigarette.
No Regard for Safety
Workplace safety features were mostly nonexistent in the Triangle factory. At that time, there were few ordinances that could be used to enforce better workplace standards. Smoke alarms did not exist, and there was no factory-wide alarm system to alert workers to a problem. Those on the factory floor realized there was a fire when they smelled smoke or saw flames.
Management was on the tenth floor, and those men were warned of the fire by a phone call from a bookkeeper on the eighth floor. From the tenth floor, they were able to ascend the fire escape and cross over to another building.
But the workers had no such opportunity. There were two sets of stairs from each floor, and one exterior fire escape that did not go all the way to the ground. There were also two freight elevators.
But these exits were not all that they seemed. In factories throughout the country, workers were frequently locked in during work hours. A supervisor unlocked the doors at lunchtime and after work. This kept employees on the job, and no one could sneak out with stolen supplies.
Panic on the Floor
When it was clear that this was more than a small fire, the women ran to the stairways. The door to one stairway was locked, and when they raced to the other stairway, they saw that it was already in flames.
Next, many of the women ran to the freight elevators that were manually operated. The men running the elevators attempted to make several runs up and down to rescue the women, but after a couple of trips, those who were waiting on one of the floors panicked.
Working together they pried apart the gates in front of the elevators and jumped into the shaft, hoping to ride to safety on the top of the elevator. The elevator could not bear the extra weight. Once down, the motors were burned out and could no longer go up for other victims.
The fire escape was probably already in poor repair, but even if it had been sound, it soon twisted under the heat of the fire, becoming unusable.
Windows were the final hope. Some women crowded in that area to breathe the fresher air, but then they realized this might be the only way off the floors.
Fire Department Arrives
Fire engines, some of them horse-drawn, were racing to the area and circling the building. Once the hoses were uncoiled and attached to the pumper wagons, the firemen shot water at the fire. The streams could barely reach the seventh floor.
Then, as the firemen raised the ladders to attempt to rescue the people, everyone in the building and on the street saw the problem: The ladders did not reach high enough. No ladder extended further than the sixth floor, meaning there was no way to use the ladders for rescues.
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 raced around with their nets to try to catch the jumpers, but it was of little use. The nets were not strong enough, and most victims fell through to the sidewalk, dying quickly of their injuries.
Within 18 minutes, the fire had gutted the factory floors of the building, and 146 people died. One hundred twenty-nine of them were women, some victims were as young as 14. Almost all were Jewish or Italian immigrants who were new to the country, working to make a way for themselves and their families.
A criminal lawsuit was brought against the company officers on behalf of the workers, but members of the management were acquitted. Prosecutors were unable to prove beyond a doubt that the men knew the exit doors were locked.
The company management lost a subsequent civil suit that was filed against them, but the penalty was small. They paid about $75 per deceased victim.
Workers Had Little Power
The Triangle Factory fire was more serious than most workplace tragedies of the day, but there was little about it that was unexpected. Garments workers were well aware that they were taken advantage of and that no one worried about their safety.
Two years prior to the tragedy (1909) garment workers went on strike for safer work conditions and better pay. They made some inroads at the smaller shops but at a big factory like the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, management was powerful enough to resist worker demands.
Over time, state laws eventually changed, providing better safety oversight of workplaces. The fire department also stepped up to modernize so they would have equipment capable of fighting fires in taller buildings.
As a direct result of the fire, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, founded in 1900, unified and grew stronger. The following October (1911), the American Society of Safety Engineers was founded. All safety organizations continued to face many challenges.
The Importance of Remembering
Ruth Sergel, a New York filmmaker and activist, recognized the importance of establishing an annual remembrance of the Triangle Factory fire. Even in the United States, workers still don’t have the protections they need or deserve.
To commemorate the tragedy, Sergel wanted to recognize the women. She worked from the list of names of those who died and located their addresses. Each year she gathers volunteers to visit the address and write the victims’ names in chalk on the sidewalks outside the buildings where they once lived. This remembrance continues. For this year’s event, click here to read about Chalk.
Remember the Triangle Coalition
She also created Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, a group that includes about 120 organizations who have participated in different ways in the remembrance.
A design contest was held in 2013, and the Coalition selected architectural designer Richard Joon Yoo and Cooper Union architecture professor Uri Wegman, to design the memorial.
The description of it is as follows: “It will feature steel panels that wrap around the building, at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place. An upper panel will be engraved with the names of the victims facing down to the lower panel, which will reflect the names for people to read. The lower panel will also tell the story of the fire. Along the corner of the building, a reflective steel beam will stretch from the level of the upper panel to the eighth floor, where the fire began.”
In 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York State will contribute $1.5 million dollars to help pay for the memorial.
More About the Fire
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.