The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent immigrant women aged sixteen to twenty-three.
Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits – a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks – many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped to the streets below. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.
The Triangle Waist Company factory occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the 10-story Asch Building on the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place. Under the ownership of Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the factory produced women’s blouses, known as “shirtwaists.” The factory normally employed about 500 workers.
As the workday was ending on the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire flared up at approximately 4:40 PM in a scrap bin under one of the cutter’s tables at the northeast corner of the eighth floor. The first fire alarm was sent at 4:45 PM by a passerby on Washington Place who saw smoke coming from the eighth floor. Both owners of the factory were in attendance and had invited their children to the factory on that afternoon. The Fire Marshal concluded that the likely cause of the fire was the disposal of an unextinguished match or cigarette butt in the scrap bin, which held two months’ worth of accumulated cuttings by the time of the fire. Although smoking was banned in the factory, cutters were known to sneak cigarettes, exhaling the smoke through their lapels to avoid detection.
A bookkeeper on the eighth floor was able to warn employees on the tenth floor via telephone, but there was no audible alarm and no way to contact staff on the ninth floor. Although the floor had a number of exits, including two freight elevators, a fire escape, and stairways down to Greene Street and Washington Place, flames prevented workers from descending the Greene Street stairway, and the door to the Washington Place stairway was locked. The foreman who held the stairway door key had already escaped by another route. Dozens of employees escaped the fire by going up the Greene Street stairway to the roof. Other survivors were able to jam themselves into the elevators while they continued to operate.
Within three minutes, the Greene Street stairway became unusable in both directions. Terrified employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, a flimsy and poorly anchored iron structure which may have been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling about 20 victims nearly 100 feet to their deaths on the concrete pavement below.
A large crowd of bystanders gathered on the street, witnessing sixty-two people jumping or falling to their deaths from the burning building. Louis Waldman, later a New York state assemblyman, described the scene years later:
The Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.
“Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.
The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.”
One hundred and forty six people died as a result of the fire.
The first person to jump was a man, and another man was seen kissing a young woman at the window before they both jumped to their deaths.