The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

It was on this day 103 years ago, Saturday 25 March 1911, that the ghastly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred in lower Manhattan. The fire remains one of the deadliest fires and one of the worst industrial disasters in American history: 146 young women died as a result of the fire. About a third of the victims burned to death, about a third were suffocated or trampled in the panic, and about a third died when they jumped helplessly from the upper floor windows to escape the inferno.

The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were running a genuine sweatshop. The workers were mostly young immigrants who worked 12 to 14-hour days, six days a week for about 15 cents an hour. The factory was a cramped, dark, and dank space occupying the eighth and ninth floors of the building. The litter of rags and cuttings helped to spread a small fire rapidly. Attempts to douse the flames were foiled by a single rotten fire hose and a control valve which had rusted shut.

As the fire spread, women began rushing to the only operational elevator, which could carry only a few at a time. It broke down under the overloaded conditions after a couple of runs. Young women tried to escape via the small stairways as well. This was to no avail as one stairway had been locked (“To prevent the girls from stealing,” according to the foreman) trapping several dozen victims, while the other stairway had a door which opened into the factory, and could not be opened against the crush of panicked people.

Ironically, the building which housed the Triangle factory was a modern, “fireproof” construction of steel and concrete. And the structure did indeed survive the deadly blaze. In fact, the building still stands and is in use to this day.

Fire safety standards of the day were minimal, but such as they were reflected the interests of insurance firms. At that time, property was far more commonly insured than lives. Architectural and engineering standards reflected a primary goal of preserving the structure rather than its occupants. Though in 1911 New York City had industrial safety laws which were considered a model for the nation, the laws were essentially unenforced. Overworked and underpaid fire inspectors were readily bribed into overlooking useless firefighting equipment, illegally locked exits, and other failings. But even in a city used to corruption and dreadful working conditions, the horrific loss of life at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory stirred action.

The owners of the factory eventually stood trial, but were completely acquitted, despite the fact that many jurors believed that they had failed to provide the required safety features. A suit against the building’s owner was more successful; after several years, the victims’ survivors were compensated about $75.00 per life lost.

In the wake of the disaster, New York City passed a far more stringent set of fire safety laws, as did the state. Many other states followed suit. New York City also put some real teeth into its laws by providing for the hiring and training of many more fire inspectors. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union organized to bring political pressure for Federal safety standards.

The building, originally bearing the eerily ironic name “The Asch Building,” still stands. It was restored after the fire and it was eventually donated to New York University. It is in use to this day as the main science facility for NYU. The late Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist whose essays helped bring esoteric science to the general public, once had an office in the building; upon discovering the building’s history, he was inspired to write an essay about biological and social evolution.

Ultimately, industrial safety and working conditions were improved throughout the nation. The Triangle fire drew attention to the issues as nothing before had. But it was not the last time that improper safety precautions and illegally locked doors would result in fire deaths. As recently as 1991, 25 factory workers died in a poultry processing plant fire in North Carolina; reading the OSHA assessment of the tragedy, one can only wonder if anything had really improved in the 80 years between 1911 and 1991.

OSHA Report:

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Capital and Labor are both wild forces which require intelligent legislation to hold them in restriction.

— John D, Rockefeller