Eighteen Minutes: the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

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.

image from Cornell University

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.

image from Cornell University

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.

image from Cornell University

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.

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20 comments

    1. It’s oddly comforting that this reporter and I shared very similar experiences, almost as if he and I were on the same plane 90 years apart. I think there might be a short story in there somewhere. Hmm…

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  1. Dear Jaquelin,

    you may be interested in this installation work marking the centenary of the Triangle Fire curated by myself and Adeola Enigbokan:

    Terrible Karma: Reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

    Terrible Karma is a mobile audio-visual installation that explores the contemporary, global reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, on it’s 100th anniversary.

    It brings together oral histories of Triangle fire survivors, audio recordings of mega-scale garment factories in Qingyuan, China, and protest songs by present-day garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia.

    The title, Terrible Karma, refers to a protest song sung by female garment workers at a rally in Phnom Penh (July 2010), as well as the idea that events of the garment industry past haunt the present – that injustice always comes back. The work arises out of the artists’ – Adeola Enigboken and Merle Patchett – mutual desire to mark the centenary of the Triangle factory fire whilst exploring the constraints and conditions in which garment workers continue to live, work and die.

    The work takes to the streets’ on March 25th, 2011. The sounds and photographs it presents will be projected from a van driven through the streets of New York, stopping at various points to allow passers-by to experience the work from inside the van’s claustrophobic confines.

    For those not in New York, the work is available to experience and download from the link supplied below.

    To download and for full details go to:

    http://www.merlepatchett.wordpress.com/triangle

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    1. Merle, thank you for this information! What an intriguing project. Kudos to you and Adeola for putting a spotlight on this issue that continues to affect many women worldwide on the anniversary of the Triangle fire.

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  2. Please feel free to post the online version of the work on your blog in solidarity on March 25th 2011 – the centenary of the fire.

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    1. Couldn’t agree more, Lisa! I think the same held true after the Titanic sank – new rules were put in place to govern passenger ships.

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    1. Indeed! I always find the little details interesting in situations like this. Had any one of a number of things been slightly different – the doors unlocked, the fire hose hooked up – this story might have had a much different ending.

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  3. What an amazing and sad story, and so wonderfully told, jacquelin. I felt quite claustrophobic reading of their struggle to get out of the building.
    I find it so poignant and beautiful that the New York firemen continue to mark this anniversary in the way they do.
    And the connection with your personal experience of 2001 is equally moving.
    Thanks for a lovely post, as always, jacquelin.
    Sunshine xx

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    1. Thank you, Sunshine. It’s satisfying to my writerly senses that you were able to connect with the story. I’ve always been interested in historical accounts – the kind that personalize past events rather than a bunch of names and dates.

      On another note, I hope your new job is going well!

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  4. What a harrowing story. We were just in the area last week, so this is vivid for me. It seems like tragedy often has to precede laws that prevent stuff like this from happening.

    How wonderful that the fire dept. still pays tribute.

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    1. So true! So true! SSince today marks the 100th anniversary, there is a larger-than-usual commemoration planned in Washington Square.

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  5. I used to live right around the corner from the asch building (now if THAT isnt an eerie name- asch, pronounced ASH as in fire) you know, you look at the modern photos and you’d never know what happened inside 100 years ago.
    When you scan the NY Times archives you find a lot of old articles detailing fires, boiler explosions, and a business on 1st av around 20th st I think that filled and stored compressed welding gases till a worker threw one of the tanks down in the pile that he was unloading, and disaster struck.
    A similar explosion happened with a malfunctioning safety and malfunctioning pressure gage and a talkative worker filling a welding tank not paying attention, it over filled and exploded.
    You never know the history of many of these buildings you walk past every day.
    While the asch building is all cleaned up and painted and all traces removed, one thing from that day still oddly remains there intact- the COBBLESTONES on Greene street have not been paved over, those are the same stones that were there when the firetrucks and horses, ambulances and hoses were all spread out.
    I noticed one picture showing a policeman looking up, bodies on the sidewalk beside him, he is obviously across the street but apparently the building with the columns is gone and replaced, or the columns were covered over.

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    1. The irony of the Asch Building never dawned on me. Gives me chills.

      So many of these buildings are steeped in history. Maybe nothing quite as dramatic as this, but still interesting. It’s one of things I enjoy about living here.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

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      1. I am reading a book on this now, it’s not in front of me at the moment to get the title, but it’s excellent.
        Some interesting points of fact the author brings out- the triangle owners had had at least TWO suspicious fires before this one.
        Both fires had occurred very early in the AM before anyone arrived for work, and the owners had purchased unusually large insurance policies and kept increasing them.
        When at one point there was to be an arranged fire drill, the owners never got back to the people who were going to set that up. Instead, they upped their fire insurance!
        If I remember right, they had 2 other fires at another location!

        2 years after the triangle disaster they had another shirtwaste factory uptown, and another LOCKED door for which Blanc I think it was- was arrested, his lawyer got him off again…
        He and Harris got a huge insurance settlement after the triangle fire- $60,000 over what their actual losses were!
        They never paid a dime in any lawsuits, and they walked out of court free.
        You know what… after reading about their unusually heavy fire insurance, declining the fire drills, the odd fires they had, makes me wonder if they didn’t have a hand in this big fire to collect insurance, and the fire unexpectedly got out of hand.
        How about the insurance companies, their guys apparently didn’t see much and paid out large sums, it wouldn’t surprise me in their adjuster who did the actual inspections was on the take, maybe even helped them get large payoffs by overlooking many things in exchange for a percentage.

        This book opens up some possibilities that this was no accident, that even if a lit cigarette butt was the cause, it would have been perfect;

        A paid shill or whomever- tosses a lit cigarette in while passing a bin of scraps just as people were getting ready to leave and a lot of commotion, and then they could blame any one of the smoking employees and collect the insurance money for damage- just the pails of water thrown on a small fire would have ruined the 100 layers of expensive “lawn” laid out, smoke would have done insurance damage too, but the little fire they planned, instead exploded into an inferno in seconds- and THAT they hadn’t planned on, and Harris and Blanc panicked.
        Too odd they both made it out alive.

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  6. Wow! I’d never heard that there was some suspected arson at the Triangle Factory. I had read that Blanc and Harris were very concerned with squeezing every ounce of profit, even at the expense of the workers’ well being. But this is quite sinister.

    I’d also read that, although the company was doing well, the profits had dropped due to the worker/union strikes the previous year. So it doesn’t sound too far fetched that Blanc and Harris would want to “recoup” some of those losses.

    If you could let me know the title of the book you’re reading, I’d love to check it out.

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  7. Hi, yeah, it’s an interesting revelation, and from what the book says, the shirtwaist business was seasonal, and also the buyers and all those involved with fashion in Paris appeared to have been the rudder that drove the US factory’s ship. It was the “Gibson girls” sketches that were responsible mainly for the popularity of the shirtwaist to begin with. Like all fashions it was subject to the whims of designers and others.
    Triangle built their whole thing on the shirtwaist and made lots of money, but it was on the decline by 1911 just as platform “clog” shoes were a must- have in the 70s and then quickly declined and then no one wore them.

    The book is on amazon, buy USED and $ave like I did, there’s 93 copies there from $1.99. Be sure to read some of the reviews too there:

    Triangle: The Fire That Changed America
    David von Drehle

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/080214151X

    What really has me puzzled, is the locked door and here’s why; when the building was built the style was still in the waned cusp of the Victorian era, and getting plainer and simpler heading towards the Art Deco style, however, the building is ornamented, not heavily but there are ornaments on the facade and a traditional rootop cornice.
    The elevators were of the old style with the actuator cable running down the center of the car, you pull the cable to start down, and lift it up to start up (or vice-versa I forget now) so the interior of the floors, while likely being rather plain, would have had solid wood doors- the hollow junk we have today came much later.
    So the doors inside , the so called interior or partition doors would have been thinner wood than say, the front entrance doors which likely would have been oak.
    The interior doors may have been painted pine or spruce, but could have been hardwood too.
    The point I’m leading up to with the style and all is, those doors absolutely beyond any doubt in my mind would have been the typical recessed panel doors that have been standard for decades.
    They didn’t have those FLAT doors we do now, the doors would have had a few inset thin-wood panels bordered with mouldings, and possibly even a wired glass light up top.
    But let’s assume no glass, in which case the panels would have been several, or at least 4- usually 2 short ones on the lower half and 2 taller ones on the upper half.

    Even back in 1911, these panels would have been a maximum of maybe 3/8″ thick- you can literally take your foot and kick them out with a good swift kick- the thin wood panel would break into pieces.

    That is why I can’t understand how anyone could get stuck behind such a door, those panels are just flimsy music box thin wood so to speak.
    Along the same lines, I read of an apartment fire recently and a survivor who was rescued said he couldn’t open the window, it was either painted or nailed shut he said.
    He and others were on the 2nd floor, he made it out the others didnt.
    I thought, he couldnt OPEN the window??? how about putting your FOOT through it? throwing a chair thru it?
    It’s almost impossible to NOT break a thin glass window if you throw something on it- even a paperback book is likely to break the glass out.
    I just find it so difficult to imagine I think it was 22 stuck behind the locked door at the triangle- that none of them could kick out a thin wood panel on an interior door, it just boggles my mind.

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    1. Thanks so much for the link. This one is going at the top of my “to be read” pile.

      I remember reading that the doors opened inward which is why they wasted precious minutes. The women rushed and pushed against the doors in a panic. And then the women in the front were being crushed against the doors and couldn’t tell everyone to move back so they could get a wide enough berth to swing the doors open. I think this is one of the reforms that happened as a result. All fire exit doors should open into the stairwell not the hallway.

      And thanks for explaining about how the elevators had cables running through the center of the car. I couldn’t understand the reports of why women had the cable burns on their hands from sliding down. Now it makes much more sense!

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