1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burns. The factory covered the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building, a ten story high rise in New York City. The corner building was in the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan and is now known at the Brown Building and is part of the New York University. The factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, made women’s blouses, called shirtwaists. Most of the employees were young immigrant workers, mostly Jews and Italians. The women worked 52 hours a week, nine hours on weekdays and “just” seven hours on Saturday and earned between $7 and $12 per week or about $170 to $290 today.
As was customary at the time, the doors to the exits were kept locked to keep the employees from unauthorized breaks or taking stock. There were normally about 500 employees working, but this was a Saturday and there were only 217 people on the three floors. The shift ended at 5 PM and both owners and their children were in the shop. At 4.40 PM a scrap bin under a cutter’s table in the northeast corner of the eighth floor began to burn. The first fire alarm was called in by a passerby on the street at 4.45 PM when smoke was seen coming from a window. The cause of the fire was thought to be either a tossed unextinguished match or a cigarette butt thrown into a bin holding two months’ worth of cuttings. Next to the bin were hundreds of pounds of scraps from the cutting out of thousands of shirtwaists.
A bookkeeper on the eighth floor was able to telephone to the tenth floor to raise an alarm, but there were no audible alarms in the building. The people on the ninth floor knew about the fire immediately. The factory had two freight elevators, a fire escape, and stairways down to the street. Flames prevented access to one stairway and the other was locked. The foreman who had the key to the locked door had already made his own escape, without opening the door for others. Some people made their way to the roof and some crammed into elevators while they still worked. Soon the one open stairway was impassible in both directions. The fire escape was flimsy and may have been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed.
The fire company soon arrived, but ladders only reached to the sixth floor. The people trapped in the building tried jumping, either into an open elevator shaft or onto the street far below – or they waiting for smoke and fire to overtake them. In all, 146 people died, 123 women and 23 men. There were 71 survivors, including both owners. They were the lucky people who made it to the roof in time. Both owners were indicted for first- and second-degree manslaughter and were found guilty of wrongful death and paid out $75 per deceased person, much less than their insurance paid them (about $400 per victim). Blanck was arrested in 1913 for again locking employees into his factory and fined $20 for the offense.
I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture – the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk. – Gunn Shepard, reporter on the scene
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. – Louis Waldman
But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.- Rose Schneiderman
To investigate factory conditions in this and other cities and to report remedial measures of legislation to prevent hazard or loss of life among employees through fire, unsanitary conditions, and occupational diseases. – mission statement of the Factory Investigating Commission