The Tragic Story of NYC’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The Tragic Story of NYC’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Jeanette Lamb - February 27, 2017

It was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City. On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory situated in the Asch Building in Greenwich Village caught on fire. Offering nothing better than sweatshop conditions, the people who owned the factory assured themselves the biggest bang for their buck.

Not only did they expect people to work in poor conditions for long hours, it was company policy to lock the stairwell doors inside the building. This was to prevent workers from taking unsanctioned breaks. On the day a fire broke out and quickly spread through the building, smoke began suffocating people. Those who realized the stairs were not an option jumped from windows in a desperate attempt to escape the inferno.

The Tragic Story of NYC’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Firefighters battling the blaze. Wikipedia

The Perfect Storm

It was late in the afternoon on a Saturday when the factory began to burn. A scrap bin under a messy table overgrown with various cuts of fabrics began seeping smoke soon after a cigarette butt had been carelessly tossed into it. Smoking was banned, but widely practiced in the factory. To avoid getting caught smoking, workers invented ways to sneak cigarettes and go undetected by funneling the smoke through lapels.

Not surprisingly, conditions for the fire were plentiful; next to the trash bin was a massive pile of unused material scrap left over from cutting fabric. That pile along with fabrics draped from the ceiling would feed and spread a fire in no time at all. Within five minutes of the trash bin catching fire, enough smoke was produced that the fire alarms sounded.

No Way Out

The factory was expansive; it took up three entire floors, the lowest of them was eight stories up. Being located so high made escaping the fire problematic. As the fire department arrived, workers not only found themselves facing a raging inferno; they had the additional task of navigating bodies falling from the windows. On top of that, they were not equipped for a fire about the sixth floors.

Their ladders were not able to reach the fire. A woman working on the eighth floor phoned the floors above to warn them about the fire. The ninth floor was not reachable, those working there learned as the fire began engulfing their work space. The ninth floor had a number of exits, a couple of freight elevators, a fire escape and stairways – as on the other floors, the stairwells were locked.

A Grisly Scene

A number of workers made their way to the rooftop. Others cramped into elevators. Neither route was available for long. The smoke made the stairway impossible to travel through. Those who reverted to the fire escape faced a perilous journey. It was flimsy and not well anchored to the building. Soon, it, too was no longer a viable option – the heat from the fire twisted its frame eventually causing it to break and fall, spilling 20 workers to their deaths on the concrete below.

Elevator operators put their lives in danger, racing the elevators to the ninth floor until they were forced to stop when the heat from the fire caused the rails to buckle. When the elevators stopped arriving, workers pried open the doors and used the elevator shaft to shimmy their way downward using cables. Word about the fire spread throughout the city. A crowd gathered and helplessly watched the grisly seen unfold.

Some of them saw the workers jumping from the windows. Some of them saw the workers hesitate before leaping, in which case their clothes would catch fire. People from the street watched as burning bodies fell one by one to their deaths.

The Tragic Story of NYC’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Typical work conditions of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. UPI

The Money Trail

The factory has not been doing well financially. It was not the first time Max Blanck and Issac Harris, the factory owners, saw their business go up in flames. Their four previous businesses were also destroyed by fire. Despite that, and that at the time in New York City the fashion district was plagued by fires, most of which had impeccable timing. They hit right around the time whatever was being sold fell out of fashion with the public. Or, this might happen if there was a large surplus of stock.

Adding to Blanck and Issac’s possible motives for arranging their factory be torched was an insurance policy the duo only recently taken out against the factory. Specifically, the insurance paid out if they lost workers to death or injury. Although an arson suit was never filed against the two men, they were both slammed with first and second degree charged of manslaughter. The fire killed 146 of their employees, most of whom were women and adolescent girls. A trial date was set for December 4, 1911.

The factory owners had a New York lawyer on their side who made a bulk of his living defending high-profile clients. He was noted for using questionable tactics while defending his wealthy clients. In the case against Blanck and Harris, he zeroed in on destroying the credibility of anyone who had anything negative to say about them. He made one woman repeat her testimony over and over.

When she did, he concluded she was only able to recite her answers because she had, like all the others who testified against his clients, memorized her made-up stories, which may have been fed to her, and others, by the prosecution. The prosecution were helpless. In the end, they not even able to prove the factory owners knew the doors of their factory were locked. It did not take long for the jury to find both men not guilty of either count of manslaughter against them. Only a few years later, the pair lost a civil suit filed against them. The charge this time was wrongful death; compensation was awarded to plaintiffs $75 per life lost that day. However, the insurance Blanck and Harris took out just before the blaze engulfed their factory paid them $400 for each of their workers who were killed.