Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Manhattan Death Trap: The Triangle Fire and Its Aftermath


Let me start with a disclaimer. This post contains graphic images. These black and white photos taken on a Saturday afternoon 104 years ago captured a tragedy so great that it still has an impact on how we build things today. In my opinion, black and white photos have the ability to show a level of detail that color photographs cannot. It doesn’t make the images less real, I think, but more so. I know that many of my loyal readers, like myself, have seen sudden violent death far more times than they care to remember. If you’d prefer to skip this post, I understand. In fact, I don’t even know why I am writing it but since I’m already dealing with a flare up of my PTSD symptoms I figure it can’t trigger me more than I already am.

Somewhere buried amongst my things, I have a simple file folder full of documents, photos, notes, and assorted other paraphernalia related to a few minutes on a Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911. For far too many people, mostly young ladies, this day was to be their last. Though some may have counted themselves fortunate that morning to have a job, their employer, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, would soon be synonymous with workplace safety hazards, locked fire escapes, greed, and death. I don’t know why I care so much about the victims of this fire as opposed to, say the Iroquois Theater Fire or the Hartford Circus Fire. I don’t know why their faces sometimes haunt my dreams. Maybe it is because as an arson investigator, I had the side assignment of fire code enforcement which meant that it was part of my job to prevent something like this from happening again. Far too often I saw the same issues (locked exit doors, etc) that contributed to the deaths of so many innocents in 1911. I was lucky. I did not have a fatality fire at a commercial structure on my watch. At times I was quick with the citation book or to take a person to jail. Perhaps too quick. But the drama that played out on corner of Washington and Greene Streets that March day must never be allowed to happen again.

The story begins with a strike. Immigrant woman made up the majority of those who worked in the “sweatshops” of the garment industry in New York City. Actually strikes in the plural sense would be the most accurate. Many of the garment workers unionized, forming the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Women often get written out of HIStory, but these ladies took a stand and made a difference. They fought for better wages, better safety conditions, and better hours. The garment manufacturers and the city of New York fought back. They hired goons to beat up women strikers. Sadly, the NYPD was involved as well, often working women over with their nightsticks both on the street and back at the station. Many were arrested and sentenced to months long jail sentences without benefit of trial. But this is America, you say! It is indeed, but the one thing you don’t do in this country is mess with those in power or with money, usually one and the same.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company occupied the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building on the corner of Washington and Greene in Manhattan. The workday started like any other, with workers lining up to enter the building. It took time since they could only use the two freight elevators to get to their work stations. Immigrant minions were not allowed to use the passenger cars with the regular people, you see. All of them, both those who perished and those who survived had stories to tell. They all came from somewhere. Most of the workers were either Eastern European Jews or Italian Catholics. And most of them, but not all, were women. At the Triangle Company, the emergency exits were kept locked so that there was only one way on and off the company floor. At the end of the day, workers had to line up and submit to searches to make sure that they were not smuggling any fabric home with them to work on (kind of like a side job). This was strictly verboten! So too was smoking on the factory floor. The 8th and 9th floors were crowded with workstations and both scraps of garments and cotton, both highly flammable. No smoking signs were posted in English and Yiddish. Sadly, the cause of the fire is generally believed to be ashes dropping into a scrap bin on the 8th Floor.

Most of the survivors could recall exactly what they were doing when they heard the terrifying cry of “Fire!” It was towards the end of the day and most were preparing to leave. On the 8th floor where the fire began, frantically tried to put it out with buckets of water that were kept near the workstations for this exact reason, but to no avail. The fire was hungry and there was plenty to eat. Soon they abandoned their attempts at suppression and tried to save themselves. Most who worked on the 8th floor did manage to find their way to safety. But one floor above them, 250 workers lined up to go through their exit rituals oblivious to the fact that an inferno raged one floor beneath them.

The fire burst through an air shaft and entered the 9th Floor sending panic into the workers who were lining up to leave. Many made it to the fire escape before the fire cut it off, but the fire escape collapsed, sending them tumbling to their deaths. Others made their way to the door which led to the stairwell only to find it locked. They moved to the windows to await the arrival of the fire department. FDNY responded quickly, with the first engines on scene within two or three minutes (faster than you’d get today). The first company had water on the fire in five minutes or so. But the Fire Department had to fight its way up through the 8th Floor to get to those trapped on the 9th, but that proved very difficult because of the intensity of the fire. Remember, these firemen had leather lungs and wore no SCBA. I’ve been in some brutally hot fires with modern protective clothing. I couldn’t imagine doing it in a rubber coat.

The ladders couldn’t reach the trapped victims. Soon they began to jump. One, after another, after another. Firefighters and police officers looked on helplessly as people jumped to their deaths. Some hit with such force as to break through the pavement. In a rather odd scene, some witnesses described a man who stood in the window sill and one by one offered his hand to ladies, like he was helping them enter a carriage. After each of them jumped, he jumped himself. Some jumped in pairs, holding hands the entire way down. Perhaps they were friends or perhaps they were related. Police officers standing on the street began to weep. The same police officers who, at the bidding of the factory owners of New York, had routinely beaten and mistreated some of these same women during the great strikes.

It was over very quickly. They fire expended its fury and the fire department was able to knock it down. What they found sickened even the most hardened hearts among them. A pile of bodies lay in front of the locked exit. Others filled the elevator shaft where the weight of the bodies piling up on top of the car had kept the very brave elevator operator from continuing his attempts to evacuate people. 146 worker perished. 123 were women and 23 were men. The majority of the victims were young women between the ages of 16 and 23. Maybe that is why I care so much?

The country was shocked. No horrified would be a better way to describe it. Progressives demanded change. The National Fire Protection Associated was formed and we would get our first Life Safety Code, the precursor to the modern International Fire Code which many communities have adopted today. I wish that this was the last major loss of life fire in the United States, but we continue to lead the industrialized world in fire deaths per capita. The Asch Building still stands today, as the fire only gutted three floors. You can visit if you’d like and stand on the corner, gaze upwards, and try to envision what happened that Saturday afternoon in 1911. Or maybe not.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. 

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