I would be remiss not to mark with special recognition the 100th Anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that took place in this building located at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in the Greenwich Village neighborhood in Manhattan on March 25, 1911. This event caused the eventual transformation of the labor code of New York State and to the adoption of fire safety measures that served as a model for the whole country.
The factory was located in the what was then the Asch Building, at 29 Washington Place, and now known as the Brown Building, part of New York University, and as you can see from the photo above, is located a block east from Washington Square Park.
(double click on all photos to enlarge them)
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, near closing time, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and within a mere 18 minutes, 146 people were dead. Over six hundred people were crowded into the three upper floors of the building, working six to seven days a week under sweat shop conditions. Five hundred of the workers were young women and girls, the majority ages eleven to twenty three years old, mostly immigrants from Italy, Russia, Germany and Hungary. Most were the main wage earners for their struggling families. They were employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. They worked long hours at their sewing machines making shirtwaist blouses which were popular fashion at the time. At approximately 4:45 PM a fire quickly flared up in a scrap bin under one of the cutter's tables at the northeast corner of the eighth floor, reportedly caused by an extinguished match or cigarette. Employees on the tenth floors were able to be notified of the fire by a bookkeeper by telephone but there was no way to send an alarm to the women on the ninth floor. The fire department arrived within minutes but the fire truck ladders in that era only reached up to six floors.
Photo source: NYPL Digital Collection direct link.
To escape the fire the workers jammed into a small freight elevator which was able to make three complete trips, and onto the lone fire escape which soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload -- see photo above -- spilling victims nearly 100 feet to their deaths. Some workers escaped by running up the one open staircase on the Green Street side of the building to the roof, where they leaped onto an adjoining building, but that staircase soon filled up with fire and smoke and was impassable. The other factory door at Washington Place was locked. The owners had been trying to prevent theft and required each worker to pass inspection as they left work each day by one exit, and had ordered the other door locked. The employee who held the key to the locked door had already escaped the fire. The women on the ninth floor, who were unaware of the fire until the last minute, desperately tried all means of escape. Many squeezed into the last elevator that was able to make the ascent to the floor of the fire, and many jumped into the elevator shaft in an attempt to ride the elevator down on its roof but perished. The weight of those bodies prevented the elevator operator from making any more attempts to operate the elevator.
The only way out for the trapped workers still alive on the ninth floor was to jump. A large crowd of bystanders, many who had been enjoying a pleasant spring day in the park, gathered on the street and with horror witnessed sixty-two people jumping or falling to their deaths from the burning building. Since so many jumped at once the firemens' nets were worthless and ripped as the bodies hit them.
Photo Source; NYPL Digital Collection direct link.
Those that did not jump were overcome with smoke and burned to death. Fifty bodies were recovered on the ninth floor, so badly burned that it was not until February 2011 that six of those victims were identified. Those six victims had been buried together in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York.
Photo Source: NYPL Digital Collection direct link
This montage from the New York Public Library digital collection shows of newspaper photos of the sad aftermath of the fire. Most of the public were outraged at the tragedy and there was a large turnout for the memorial service. Nearly 400,000 New Yorkers filled city streets to pay tribute to the victims and raise money to support their families. The ensuing public outrage forced government action. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire helped to solidify support for workers' unions like the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. The owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were tried for manslaughter but were acquitted in 1914. The fire became a rallying cry for the international labor movement and many of our fire safety laws were created in response to this tragic event.
Each year, Workers United sponsors a commemoration of those who died in the Triangle Fire. More information is available on their web site: Workers United. Several commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire will take place in New York City and across the country. The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition makes available an online listing of upcoming events.
The ILR School Kheel Center, a division of Cornell University, has an extensive collection of material about the Triangle Fire and is worth exploring for information, names of the victims, photos and first hand accounts of the fire.
HBO has made a documentary called: Triangle Remembering the Fire which premiered on March 21, 2011. See the trailer below or view Trailer
It is fitting to remember the young women and men who senselessly lost their lives that day. After the Triangle Fire tragedy, many work place reforms and fire safety laws have undoubtlessly saved many lives. It remains one of the worst fires this city has ever witnessed.