Thursday, March 24, 2011

100 Year Anniversary of the Triangle Fire


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


There is also an excellent PBS Documentary about the Triangle Fire that you can watch in its entirety below or at this link.




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.


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31 comments:

Carol said...

Saw on the news it was the anniversary. So sad. I remember seeing a TV movie on it, learning about it in school. We should never forget this. Great post, Pat.

Betsy from Tennessee said...

I had read about that horrible fire before --but didn't know all of the details. Unbelievable... Thanks for the nice tribute, Pat.
Hugs,
Betsy

Lovella ♥ said...

Such tragedy we can not really imagine. Those poor souls must have been so petrified as they met their death. I had never known about this fire. Your tribute is so well written, thankyou!

Claudia said...

I always thoughbt I would write about it - but have nothing compelling to add... yet. The tales of that fire have always filled me with grief. Remembrance is good. In these days of cavalier attitudes toward labor, remembrance is important.

Sara said...

Wonderful tribute to a horrible event. I remember reading about that in school ... and then again in college in my American History class.

Lori E said...

So tragic. As a genealogy researcher I know how things like this can cause a family to disperse in different directions as the surviving parent can't care for their children. Devastating.

annie said...

It was a horrific fire.
I first read of it in Time and Again, then looked into the history of it.
Just awful conditions for those women to work under.

Ciao Chow Linda said...

It's kind of shocking to me that a lot of people don't know about this, so I thank you for informing everyone and paying tribute to the people who died there.

steviewren said...

I remember learning about this fire in school. Terribly tragic for all those young women and their families. It is good that some good could come from it.

Ginny said...

What a horrible story, getting worse and worse as I read it. I never did know about this fire, I sure learned a lot today. I now think I need to check our smoke alarms and buy a kitchen extinguisher.

Lucy (aka rharper) said...

So that's why I've seen tv documentaries on that event lately. It's riveting to watch it. I gotta go back and look at those photos more closely. Thanks for this!

Annesphamily said...

The stories of the fire are just heart breaking. This was a beautiful tribute Pat. I was planning to ask you if you ever blogged about it before but here is my answer. You really bring your city to life for many of us. Thank you. Anne

Judy ~ My Front Porch said...

Fitting indeed...to remember those who lost their lives that day. What a horrible tragedy! A most informative post about an event I knew nothing of. Thanks, Pat.

lines n shades said...

what a tragic story. it's hard to ever even imagine such incidents. a wonderful tribute.

thank you for such an informative post

Ⓙ @ $ € € ₦$ ₣®0₥... said...

I hadn't known all the detail. I can't even wrap my brain around such tragedy.

Donnie said...

Such a sad time in that cities history. You did them a very nice tribute.

Elizabeth said...

An excellent post, Pat.
I remember seeing a documentary on this tragedy some years ago. Probably on PBS.
Those poor young women! It haunts me with horror.
The only good thing one can say about it is that it did begin to make for better laws about work conditions.
Again, so well written.

Tanna at The Brick Street Bungalow said...

This is a nice tribute to those poor souls whose lives were senselessly lost, Pat. Tragic.

Barbara F. said...

I think the ladies who posted before me have said it all. A touching post and a wonderful tribute for those hardworking women. Their ultimate sacrifice made things better for future generations. Both my grandmothers were seamstresses who worked in factories. xo,

Sheila said...

I've heard of the fire many times before but never in such detail. thanks for sharing the information with us Pat. It's a tragic story that needs to be retold and remembered for the safety of anyone who works in bad conditions. Workers everywhere need to be protected and deserve to work in a safe environment.

Theanne and Baron said...

Pat...thank you for reminding me of this tragedy! Very nice post about a horrible event.

Yvette said...

Thanks Pat, for this somber and very well done post. A horrible anniversary but one that must be remembered and the the memory of those unfortunate women, honored.

Vee said...

I remember watching a movie about this historic event. It was terribly effecting. Thank you for remembering.

Riet said...

What a tragedy that was Pat. I didn't hear of it before but I can see how much inpact it had .Sorry I haven't visited here for a long time but I haven't been blogging much lately.That long winter made me depressed and sad. Glad it is spring now and it started here with nice sunny days. We all long for sun don't you think

Jo said...

what a tragic loss of life ... Thanks so much for this interesting history ... really well written Pat ... at least, some good came out of it ... But how hoirribly sad and terrifying for those poor women and girls ... at such young ages ...

Betty (picture circa 1951) said...

I do remember hearing about that in the past. Thank you for such an interesting and informative post. I guess what bothers me now is the fear that some of those same working conditions have possibly been moved to other countries where most of our clothes are now produced. I fear that price is more important than worker safety, but since it's not right under our nose we tend to not think about it or care.

The Gathering Place said...

What a tragic event. I'm glad the labor laws were changed after that.

~Lavender Dreamer~ said...

How sobering. Thanks for sharing this with us and giving us links to learn more! Hugs! ♥

Jo said...

Pat,my friend,I had not heard of this.146 people lost, and the part were the people falling/jumping to their deaths reminds of 9-11.You are sweet to do this tribute to the 100 Year Anniversary of the Triangle Fire.
Thanks for sharing, and the facts is kinda like a history lesson, I do enjoy reading your blog.

Have a wonderful,glorious weekend.
~JO
LazyonLoblolly

Old Kitty said...

Oh how terrible!!! :-( These poor women and girls. It's just awful!

The show is really really good! I'm glad PBS allowed me to watch - it's such a tragic event and bears remembering.

I think the best parts of this film were the thoughts of these lovely women and girls given voices here!!!

Their deaths have brought protection and a chance for workers to retain their dignity at work.

The building itself is beautiful - it's wonderful that now it's used for education!!!

Thanks for highlighting such a cathartic event!! Take care
x

Houseelf said...

Those poor poor women. It is such a shame that it takes a tragedy for something to be done. On the water it took the Titanic sinking to bring in lifeboat legislation.