Friday, March 25, 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, 100 Years Ago Today

One Hundred Years ago today around 4:45 in the afternoon, fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in New York in the Greenwich Village section. One hundred forty six people died in the fire, the worst industrial disaster in New York City's history and the 4th worst industrial disaster in American History. While all involved agreed that the fire was accidental, authorities differed on the exact cause. Some blamed a discarded cigarette, others a spark from a sewing machine. To keep their workers from sneaking off the job for illicit breaks and worried about petty thievery, the factory's owners padlocked all of the exits during work hours. The exit doors were all padlocked during the fire, and the building's one flimsy cast iron fire escape collapsed under the weight of so many trying to escape sending dozens of people to their deaths 100 feet below. Women trapped on the floors leapt or fell to their deaths on the street below, some in flames as they plummeted. Horrified and hysterical crowds watching the disaster had to be restrained by the police with rioting threatening to break out among crowds gathering in nearby Washington Square Park.

The owners of the Triangle Factory evaded manslaughter charges, but were found liable in civil court. The plaintiffs were awarded about $75 per victim.

Most of the victims of the fire were young Jewish and Italian women from the Lower East Side, daughters from immigrant families. They worked 6 days a week, 9 hours a day from Monday through Friday, and 7 hours on Saturday. The conditions in the Triangle Factory were not exceptional for that time. It was common practice to lock employees in a workplace during business hours. The very lax safety conditions were also unexceptional by the day's standards.

So much is being said today about the fire and its legacy by far greater minds and by more eloquent people than myself. As the right to bargain collectively is being effectively repealed in the United States, the memory of the Triangle Fire takes on a new dimension of meaning and pathos. Frances Perkins, the first Secretary of Labor, and a witness to the fire, always said that the New Deal began in the Triangle Fire. This catastrophe propelled the organization of wage earners for their safety as well as for better wages. Political leadership in New York City and state began taking a serious look at the issue of worker safety in the workplace for the first time.

All that was fought for in the fire's wake is now under threat of repeal. We forget that so many things that we take for granted in our jobs, like our safety in the workplace and workman's comp, were not the free gift of benevolent corporate autocrats, but had to be fought for over decades, and sometimes after terrible disasters like the Triangle Fire.

The FDNY trying to fight the fire. Their ladders only reached up to the 6th floor.

Crowds gathering in nearby Washington Square during the fire.

Police helplessly watch victims still trapped above as bodies of victims who jumped or fell lie on the sidewalk nearby.

Police with victims of the fire on the sidewalk

Bringing the fire victims to a makeshift morgue for identification.

Family members filing by open coffins trying to identify their dead. The line of bereaved people waiting to get into the large temporary morgue on 1st Avenue stretched for blocks.

A funeral and protest march for one of the victims.

The Asch Building today. Now it is officially the Brown Building and part of the New York University campus.


JayV said...

Thanks for writing this post. I have linked to it on my blog today and quoted your last paragraphs.

JCF said...

Memory eternal, NEVER FORGET!!!

Unknown said...

I've been following the news as this anniversary has unfolded this week on TV. Your article here touched on many things that but I think the pictures really show how terrible this was.