The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred in New York City on March 25, 1911. It is the worst industrial disaster in the history of the city. The Triangle Shirtwaist company occupied the 8th, 9th and 10th stories of a 10 story building overlooking Washington Square, what is today known as the Asch building. The company manufactured women's blouses, which at the time were referred to as "shirtwaists" or simply "waists." The 500 employees, mostly immigrant Jewish, Italian, and German girls, were looking forward to finishing their work and heading out into a mild spring evening. The fire began around 4:40 p.m. on the 8th floor cutting room. It appears likely that someone threw a lit match or cigarette into a pile of remnants. Many factories, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, routinely locked their workers into their spaces to limit distractions, to keep out union organizers, and to allow for the searching of girls as they exited--a preventive measure against the theft of sewing materials. As the fire quickly spread and the exit doors were found to be locked, panicked workers sought other means of exit. Those on the 10th floor managed to escape, helped across the roof to an adjoining building by students from New York University. Most workers on the 8th floor were able to escape by the elevators, until the intense heat put them out of service. Workers on the 9th floor were trapped. The fire escape collapsed, sending several workers plunging to their deaths, and cutting off the only other means of escape. The Fire Department arrived within minutes, but even their most sophisticated equipment could not reach the upper floors, and their nets broke with the first jumpers. Facing certain death by fire, immigrant girls began jumping off of the 9th floor to the sidewalk below. Eventually, scores of girls crowded onto the ledge took each other by the hand and jumped off the building to their deaths. Some were impaled on the iron fence below.
It was over in less than fifteen minutes. One hundred forty-eight died, mostly from jumping. Charred, headless bodies were found piled near the exit door, while others were still hunched over their sewing machines. The bodies were taken down to the pier for a grisly identification process that took three days.
An outpouring of grief and support climaxed with a funeral for the unidentified. Several hundred thousand mourners joined in the procession in a driving rain, while several hundred thousand more looked on from the sidewalks.
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire came on the heels of several years of efforts to bring about reform in the garment industry. In 1909, a large strike of women, makes of women's garments, went on strike to protest working conditions in what became known as the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand. The immigrant girls were joined on the picket lines by some higher society women who were politicized by the suffrage issue, but a bitter winter and dwindling resources soon took its toll. This strike was followed by a large strike involving the makers of men's garments and cloaks, which forced the company owners to the bargaining table. Few concessions were won there, however, and some companies, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, had refused to sign the agreement at all.
Following the fire, the owners of the company, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris,
were charged with manslaughter. To the shock and disbelief of many, they were acquitted, largely because the prosecution failed to prove that the two men knew the exit doors were locked at the time of the fire. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty. In 1913, Blanck was once again arrested for locking the door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20. In 1914, they were ordered by a
judge to pay damages of $75 each to the
families of twenty-three victims who had
The fire did prompt the creation of the Factory Investigating Commission
of 1911. The Commission gathered testimony, and ultimately established the Bureau of
Fire Investigation under the direction of
Robert F. Wagner, which gave the fire department
additional powers to improve factory safety.