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From the buzzards perspective...

Random articles that are created as I travel, experience new things, meet new people and discover new insights.

  • Writer's pictureEddy Weiss

The Triangle ShirtWaist Factory Fire, March 25, 1911

This weekend will mark a dark anniversary in America that few even know about. The Triangle shirtwaist factory fire occurred on March 25, 1911 in New York.

It is widely believed that the fire was sparked by a cigarette being smoked on the premises and started on the eighth floor of the Ash Building located at 23-29 Washington Place near Washington Square Park.

Because of the large amounts of materials available, the fire quickly spread upward to the top floors…but that is not half the story.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the Greenwich Village neighborhood was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city as well as being one of the most deadly in American history. The fire caused the death of 146 garment workers, 123 women and 23 men. All of these people died from fire, smoke inhalation and/or falling or jumping from windows to the streets below.

As I said, the factory was located on the floors 8, 9 and 10 of the Asch Building which still stands to this day and is known as the “Brown Building”. The building was relatively new at the time of the fire having been built in 1901.

Because the doors to the stairwells and exits were locked – a common practice at the time to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to reduce theft] – many of the workers could not escape from the burning building and jumped from the high windows. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards nationwide.

About the fire

At approximately 4:40 pm on Saturday, March 25, 1911, as the workday was ending, a fire flared up in a scrap bin under one of the cutter's tables at the northeast corner of the 8th floor. The first fire alarm was sent at 4:45 pm by a passerby on Washington Place who saw smoke coming from the 8th floor. Both owners of the factory were in attendance and had invited their children to the factory on that afternoon.

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the Triangle Waist Company

The Fire Marshal concluded that the likely cause of the fire was the disposal of an un-extinguished match or cigarette butt in a scrap bin containing two months' worth of accumulated cuttings. Beneath the table in the wooden bin were hundreds of pounds of scraps left over from the several thousand shirtwaists that had been cut at that table.

Although smoking was banned in the factory, cutters were known to sneak cigarettes, exhaling the smoke through their lapels to avoid detection. Although owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were known for having had four previous suspicious fires at their companies, arson was not suspected in this case.

Although early references of the death toll ranged from 141 to 148, almost all modern references agree that 146 people died as a result of the fire: 123 women and girls and 23 men.

The first person to jump was a man, and another man was seen kissing a young woman at the window before they both jumped to their deaths.

The fire department arrived quickly but was unable to stop the flames, as their ladders were only long enough to reach as high as the 7th floor. The fallen bodies and falling victims also made it difficult for the fire department to approach the building.

Bodies of workers who jumped from windows to escape

The company's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris survived the fire by fleeing to the building's roof when it began, were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter in mid-April; the pair's trial began on December 4, 1911. The prosecution charged that the owners knew the exit doors were locked at the time in question.

The jury acquitted the two men of first- and second-degree manslaughter, but they were found liable of wrongful death during a subsequent civil suit in 1913 in which plaintiffs were awarded compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim.

Bodies of the victims being placed in coffins on the sidewalk

In 1913, Blanck was once again arrested for locking the door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20 which was the minimum amount the fine could be.

As a result of the fire, the American Society of Safety Professionals was founded in New York City on October 14, 1911. Today, The American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) is the oldest professional safety organization. Its more than 32,000 members manage, supervise and consult on safety, health and environmental issues in industry, insurance, government and education.

The last living survivor of the fire was Rose Freedman, née Rosenfeld, who died in Beverly Hills, California on February 15, 2001, at the age of 107. She was two days away from her 18th birthday at the time of the fire.

You can view the short 1912 Edison-made silent film, The Crime of Carelessness which tells the story of the fire here (when was the last time you watched a silent film?):


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