… the Triangle Waist Factory in New York caught fire at 4:45 pm.
The Triangle filled the top three floors of the ironically named Asch Building. Since it was a saturday, the other businesses in the lower floors had closed for the weekend around noon. But the workers at the Triangle were scheduled to work until five that afternoon.
The blaze began when a cigarette (or match, according to some versions) fell into a scrap bin filled with two months’ worth of undisposed scraps unnoticed. The workers on the eighth floor notified the owners on the tenth floor immediately via telephone. The owners evacuated via the rooftops to safety.
Unfortunately, nobody thought to warn the factory workers on the ninth floor. Equally unfortunately, many of the workers on the eighth floor – where the fire started – found themselves unable to escape.
Within minutes, the workers, trapped in the building by the flames, one locked exit door, the other inaccessible via the burning stairwell, and a fire escape that ended in midair five stories above the pavement, began to die.
They burned inside the building, hurled themselves from windows. A few were trampled by their panicked co-workers. The elevator operators bravely continued running the two elevator cars as long as they dared, but each one only held ten passengers. Twenty to thirty crowded in on each descent. As they descended for the last time, some women even attempted to jump down and ride the roofs of the elevators. They were unsuccessful.
In all, one hundred forty-six workers between the ages of fourteen and forty-three lost their lives. Most were immigrants, all but a handful were women.
It was one of the worst industrial disasters in American history up to that time, and the second greatest loss of life in a New York disaster until 9/11.
The most appalling aspect of the entire event to me is the fact that every safety regulation of the time and place had been honored to the letter by the owners of the factory and the owners of the building. And still women fell from the fire escape where it ended in midair and collapsed under the weight of more people than it could ever have safely borne. Still women were trapped by a locked exit door. Highly flammable stacks of sewn shirts and scrap fabric were allowed to accumulate throughout the factory where they fed the flames. When the firemen arrived, their ladders only reached as high as the sixth floor… two floors below the burning factory.
But from that disaster came new safety laws that have protected workers ever since. Because of the horrific deaths of the Triangle workers: exit doors must remain unlocked during business hours, fire escapes are required to go all the way to the tops and the bottoms of buildings rather than a set number of stories, large businesses must have fire alarms and hold regular fire drills, new standards of ventilation and sanitation were created and enforced. New child labor laws were enacted, and ones already on the books were more vigorously enforced.
All the same, the cost of one hundred forty-six lives was too high.
Today, on the anniversary, I’d like to take a moment to remember the women, girls, boys, and men who died that fateful day: