This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which resulted in the most radical workplace reform in American history. Through the transom of time, I have an unusual parallel with the experiences of the on-scene reporter and what would become the largest US workplace disaster on record.
Among the people walking through Washington Square Park in Manhattan on March 25, 1911, was a reporter for the United Press news agency. William Gunn Shepherd followed the sound of women screaming, volunteer firemen sloshing buckets of water and windows shattering. As he reached the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street he saw what the commotion was about – a mushroom of smoke billowed into the sky and fire raged from the eighth floor of the Asch Building.
March 25 was a Saturday. At the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, it was the shortest day of the workweek – 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., with a 45-minute break for lunch. Five hundred workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, took the freight elevators to the eighth, ninth and tenth floors – the three top floors of the building. They were part of the largest blouse making operation in New York, shipping more than 2,000 garments per day. Owners Max Blanck and Issac Harris, immigrants coming from abject poverty themselves, were finally living the good life; receipts at Triangle totaled one million dollars a year (in today’s dollars).
There were 240 sewing machines installed on each side of eight long tables spanning the length of the room. The most skilled job was that of a draper, who turned the designer’s vision into the actual garment. Esther Harris was a draper and one of the highest paid workers at Triangle, making $22 per week. Not far behind on the pay scale were the cutters whose job it was to place the patterns with maximum efficiency to waste as little fabric as possible. Perhaps it was one of those cutters, closest to the scrap bins filled with tissue paper patterns and fabric, who tossed a lit cigarette in her rush to head home. It was 4:42 p.m. and the end of a long work week.
The fire quickly grew from the scrap bin and licked at the hanging patterns. As the patterns dropped onto the tables, they ignited the fabric that had been left for Monday morning. There was a firestorm effect where small pieces of burning fabric flew in tornado-like funnels around the room, catching everything in their path on fire. The 180 women who worked on the eighth floor were already lined up at the Greene Street elevators, where they had to wait at wooden partitions to be inspected for theft. Panic rippled through the women as they noticed the smoke and flames beginning in the corner of the room. Some rushed the partition and shouted. Some sprinted to the Washington Place exit. Some ran to the fire escape. Some tried to put the fire out with water pails. But flames just got stronger.
Then there are the dozens of little details that pile on top of each other and turn a terrible situation into an absolute catastrophe. Dinah Lipschitz, a manager on the eighth floor, called the tenth floor to alert them to the fire. But then the switchboard operator dropped the call before she could connect them to the ninth floor. The doors to the stairwell opened inward instead of outward. The crush of people prevented them from opening the doors. Ida Cohen was one of those women. “All the girls were falling on me and they squeezed me to the door.” She thought she would be shoved right through the glass pane. Finally Louis Brown pushed them away from the door. It was locked and he went to get a key. Scores of women fled downstairs.
As the eighth floor darkened with smoke and the heat rose, manager Samuel Bernstein got the firehose. It was supposed to be connected to a large tank on the roof, but it wasn’t. He lost three to four minutes of precious time while he tried to get water to come out. Only five to six minutes after coming to life, the fire had consumed most of the eighth floor – more than 9,000 sq. ft.
For the women who had run to the fire escape, the route down was terrifying. The landings and sloping stairs were wide enough for only one woman at a time. The fire escape ended over a basement skylight in an L-shaped airshaft enclosed on all sides by the three buildings that occupied the city block. Realizing this, one woman opened the sixth floor shutters and broke through the window. Women followed her lead and ran to the stairwell on that floor only to find the doors locked. But they were the lucky ones. They were later rescued by a police officer who heard them pounding on the door. The fire escape soon collapsed taking dozens of women with it.
Outside, a crowd had gathered on Greene Street. Flames rising from the eighth floor windows were being sucked into those on the ninth floor and from there they lapped at the top floor. As the first horse-drawn fire carriages arrived, women appeared in the windows of the eighth and ninth floors, craning for fresh air and for a ladder that would never come. The fire captain ordered the longest ladders drawn up to the building, but fully extended, they reached only the sixth floor as did the stream of water from fire hoses. A team of firefighters entered the building and reported that the treads of the stairwell were cracking in the heat. The smoke was so intense they couldn’t stand to face it. They lay on their bellies and opened the hoses.
Then the bystanders saw something large and dark fall from one of the windows. “He’s [owner Max Blanck] trying to save his best cloth,” said a voice in the crowd. When the next bundle began to fall, they realized it was a human being. “I learned a new sound,” reporter William Gunn Shepherd would write later, “a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.”
Shepherd’s description is difficult to read, and it is perhaps why this tragedy is so particularly heartbreaking to me. He continues, “There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet…I even watched one girl falling. Waving her arms, trying to keep her body upright until the very instant she struck the sidewalk, she was trying to balance herself.”
I wasn’t as close to the World Trade Center as Shepard was to the Asch Building. But close enough, I watched as Shepherd did, our two accounts eerily similar. Faces appearing in the windows. Windows being broken with office furniture. Them perching in the sill. Us praying silently, “Don’t jump; stay there,” as Shepherd writes. Them realizing they were out of options. “Then she dropped into space.” At one point he turned away from the scene, as I did, unwilling to commit any more of these indelible images to memory.
In only eighteen minutes, the three top floors of the Asch Building were engulfed and 146 (mostly) women, average age 20, perished. But through their deaths, the same women, who had picketed for the right to organize in workers’ unions, brought forth even greater change – new legislation for safer working conditions, such as sprinkler systems, unlocked doors during business hours, clear pathways to clearly marked stairwells, and fire escapes that exit to the street, much of it a direct result of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Every year on March 25, the New York City Fire Department rings the truck bell 146 times and extends the ladder to the sixth floor of the Asch Building, now part of New York University, in rememberance of the workers who died.
For more information on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire visit the Cornell University site.