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 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 top three 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 on the fabric with maximum efficiency. 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. 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. 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. Some of the women rushed the partition and shouted. Some sprinted to the Washington Place exit. Some ran to the fire escape, and some tried to put the fire out with water pails. But the flames just got stronger.
There were dozens of little details that piled on top of each other and turned a terrible situation into a 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.” Finally Louis Brown was able to push the women away from the door, but it was locked. He rushed to find a key.
As the eighth floor darkened with smoke and the heat rose, manager Samuel Bernstein got the fire hose. 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 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.”
In only eighteen minutes, the three top floors of the Asch Building were engulfed and 146 (nearly all) women, average age 20, perished. As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, I wanted to recognize these mostly anonymous women in some way. Their deaths brought forth great 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 — a direct result of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
A segment from CBS Sunday Morning with photos of some of the women and details of the sweeping workplace reform that occurred as result of the fire.
Have a great weekend, everyone!