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Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Fire hoses aim at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory -- too late to save many of its workers. March 25, 1911.

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which cost the lives of 146 people, mostly young immigrant women, many of them teenagers. It was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York. I don't post about this kind of thing often, but I wanted to share the story of the factory fire here. (The history I'm sharing in this post is largely drawn from Wikipedia. Inspired by a request from the Jewish Labor Committee, we'll be reading a version of this story as our Torah study in shul tomorrow in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the fire.)

The Triangle Shirt Waist Company, founded by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris in 1900, was by 1911 one of the largest producers in New York City of the women's blouses popular at that moment in time, known as shirtwaists. Located in the Asch Building in what is now Greenwich Village, the factory employed 500 people, mostly young immigrant women who worked nine hours a day and seven hours on Saturdays. The factory occupied the eighth, ninth and tenth floors, which were the top three floors of the building.

As The Triangle Shirtwast Fire: 100 Years Later by Bill Singer notes, this was a newfangled fireproof building -- safer than the downtown sweatshops, though "safer" was a relative term. On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started on the eighth floor. Work had ended at 4:30 that day and most of the workers were gathering their belongings and their paychecks when a cutter noticed a small fire had started in his scrap bin. No one is sure what exactly started the fire, though a fire marshal blamed it on an illicit cigarette and the New York Times suggested the fire might have been started by the engines running the sewing machines. Nearly everything in the room was flammable: hundreds of pounds of cotton scraps, tissue paper patterns, and wooden tables.

Several workers threw pails of water on the fire, but it quickly grew out of control. There were fire hoses available on each floor, but when workers turned the valves on to try to extinguish the fire, no water came out.

A woman on the eighth floor tried to call the ninth and tenth floors to warn them. Only the tenth floor received the message; those on the ninth floor didn't know about the fire until it was upon them.

Everyone rushed to escape the fire. Some ran to the four elevators. Built to carry a maximum of 15 people each, they quickly filled with 30. The elevator operators made as many trips as they could before the fire reached the elevator shafts and the steel began to buckle. Others ran to the fire escape, but it wasn't long before that too buckled and collapsed, killing 25 people.

Many on the tenth floor, including the owners Blanck and Harris who were visiting the factory that day with their children, made it safely to the roof and then were helped to nearby buildings. Many on the eighth and ninth floors were stuck. The elevators were no longer available, the fire escape had collapsed, and the doors to the hallways were locked (company policy).

A brief promo for Triangle: Remembering the Fire, a documentary which aired on HBO a few days ago.

At 4:45 p.m., the fire department was alerted to the fire. They rushed to the scene and raised their ladder, but it only reached to the sixth floor. Those on the window ledges started jumping. Lewis Waldman, who had been reading books in the Astor Library and was drawn to the scene by the noise of the fire engines, reported:

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.

The fire was put out in half an hour. Of the 500 employees, 146 were dead. The bodies were taken to a covered pier on Twenty-Sixth Street, near the East River. Thousands of people lined up to identify the bodies of loved ones. After a week, all but six were identified. The final six victims were identified belatedly last month -- for more, you can read the Times article Unnamed Triange Waist Company Victims Identified.

Blanck and Harris -- both themselves Russian immigrants; they had founded the company in 1900 -- were indicted on charges of manslaughter. Their counsel destroyed the credibility of one of the survivors by demanding that she repeat her testimony several times and noting that she used the same words each time -- counsel alleged that she had memorized her statements and might have been told what to say. The two men were acquitted, though they lost a subsequent civil suit and had to pay $75 per deceased victim. The insurance company then paid them about $400 per casualty.

In 1913, Blanck was arrested again for locking the doors in his factory during work hours; he was fined $20.

I can hardly imagine what it must have been like to be one of the young immigrant women in that factory as it burned -- much less to have been the parent or sibling or child of one of those young women, tasked with identifying her burnt body on the pier. I don't even know how to respond to the reality that the factory owners reaped financial benefit from the loss of these individual human lives. And I can't help reading these accounts now -- people trapped in a burning building, too high for ladders to reach; the horrific choice to burn or to jump -- through the lens of 9/11.

May the memories of the 146 who lost their lives in that fire be a blessing. And may those memories inspire us to continually ensure that those who labor today do so under conditions which are safe and humane.


Edited to add: don't miss Sue Swartz' poem commemorating this anniversary and remembering this tragedy: Triangle Shirtwaist Kaddish.