Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire


Apr 11, 2001
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The History channel offered an anniversary tribute to this dreadful disaster which happened on March 25th, 1911. 145 young women perished in a ninth floor blaze in New York. The management had locked the doors on these girls as they sat at their sewing machines-not wanting them to get off to union meetings or out to breaks. The last remaining survivor died at age 107 last month. A lot of parallels with Titanic here- the photo coverage, media, all very similar. The owner, Mr. Brandt was acquitted of charges as it was impossible to prove that the supervisors knew the door was locked. Many girls jumped to their deaths, some were engulfed in the elevator shaft, some tried the overloaded fire escape only to have it pull away and crash back into the building. As a result, many changes occured in safety regulations also like the Titanic aftermath. For more info go to
http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire
or the History Channel
 
Apr 11, 2001
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Forgot to mention that nearly all the victims were poor Italian or Jewish immigrants, nearly all were young women- some only 15 years old. The photographs at the site above show a great deal of the 1912 era.
 
Apr 11, 2001
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Max Steuer was the defense attorney. In 1913 23 of the families filed civil suits and were awarded only $75 dollars per life lost. The above link is WELL worth navigating in its entirety and gives a good glimpse of the rise of women in the age in the trade unions and the eventual formation of OSHA. The survivors stories posted will equal Titanic.
 

Jim Kalafus

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Quite an interesting trial, that. Especially the locked door issue. The Triangle Factory was served by two passenger elevators and two freight elevators, as well as staircases on opposing corners of the building- one facing Washington Place and one facing Greene Street. Both doors remained open during working hours, 'though the Washington Place stairway was locked (with the key suspended from a string or a length of fabric) at closing time to channel workers out through the Greene Street staircase- not as a means of preventing union activity but, as was testified to, as a means of preventing theft. As each woman exited through the Greene Street side of the building her bag would be searched (and it was later revealed that the total value of stolen merchandise in the year leading up to the fire was perhaps $25) before she could pass through. By day the Washington Place door was supposedly the principle means by which workers moved from floor to floor. I am not sure of the composition of the Greene Street exit, but the locked door on Washington Place was made of wood and wired glass, and opened inward. When the fire broke out on the eighth floor, a call was put through to the tenth floor warning the 70 workers (and the executive suite) of the danger and subsequently only one life was lost from that floor and less than a dozen from the eighth. The switchboard operator then abandoned her post to search for her sister, leaving the ninth floor (and 250 workers) unwarned. The fire blew up into the ninth floor through the open exit on Greene Street, and the workers were either trapped in the aisles which ran flush to the wall on the end of the factory opposite the flames, or were driven to the elevators or the Washington Place door. Here is where the legally interesting stuff comes in- at least two women testified that they unlocked the door and stepped into the staircase to find it filling with flames, and others testified that they tried to pull the door open but were prevented from doing so by the crush against it (it opened inward) and yet another girl mentioned looking for a machine head with which to break the glass upper half of the door but instead escaped by the elevator. So there was more than reasonable doubt cast as to whether the door was unlocked, or locked at the time of the fire, and also doubt as to who locked it. I am far from a fan of Isaac Harris and Max Blanck (the owners) and find repulsive the fact that as late as 1914 they were STILL being cited for similar violations in other factories they owned, but I find the whole locked door thing to be kind of a red herring- the real outrages were the wooden floors; the over filled rag bins (soaked with oil in some cases); the aisles which were open only at one end (which drove the women down them and then out of the windows as a last resort- of the 145 who died fewer than 60 died in the building, most being killed by jumping); the lack of fire drills; the fire escape which was designed so poorly that it was virtually useless (the doors on the escape opened outward and fit flush against the outer railing so that women from the ninth floor attempting to escape were only able to get as far as the eighth floor balcony where the open door blocked off the bottom of the escape ladder- and so the girls remained until the whole thing collapsed under their weight); the lack of effective supervision; AND a fire code which allowed such a building to be built. Sadly, the Asch Building was one of the better factories and confirmed to the letter of the law.

In one of those odd coincidences, March 25 is ALSO the anniversary of NY's second worst building fire- the Happy Land Social Club arson of the late 1980's or early 1990's. That was the one in which a fellow up in the Bronx got into a disagreement with his lady friend at an illegal social club for immigrants (in a building owned by the husband of Kathleen Turner, who got a lot of bad press for his tenuous involvement in this catastrophe) purchased some gasoline and set the only means of escape from the club (a single staircase) ablaze. Either 89 or 91 people died, and a handful escaped, including the girlfriend of the arsonist.
 

Jim Kalafus

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I should also mention that The Triangle Fire, by Leon Stein (available at a WIDE range of prices over at bibliofind.com) is the best "easy" read on this topic. Dozens of survivors were interviewed, a GREAT history of the Garment Worker's Strike (which actually began at Triangle- and the man who started it died later in the fire) is included; and it gives a remarkably balanced account of the trial in that it doesn't seek to demonize Blanck, Harris or Steuer. But, you come away loathing the owners anyway, which is why it works so well.
 
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Good to see you! Thanks for the details- the fire I believe was to have started with a cigarette- smoldering in scraps of fabric on the floor. The 107 year old survivor testified she was bribed by Blanck to say the door was open- she escaped by crawling out through the roof and firemen, whose hose only went to the 7th floor-got on the adjoining building and helped her across. She walked down 10 floors and cried at every landing- her father fainted when he saw her on the ground safe. Her interview tonight (Rosa died in Feb 2001) was riveting.
 

Jim Kalafus

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Do read the Stein book if you can get it, as it is really on ANTR level.

When in NYC, be sure to visit the Triangle building which still stands at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, as the Brown Building of NYU. There has been some streamlining of the ground floors, but the rest is pretty much exactly the same as in 1911- including the cobblestones on Greene Street.

AND, in one of those "only in NY" coincidences, that corner became the focal point of the worst "hit and run" incident in living memory- back when I went to college there. A woman, who must have been in her 40's when the Triangle burned (and remember, this is ca 1989) was parked in front of the Former Triangle Building...or at least, nominally parked, as the car was still in drive. One thing lead to another, and in her ensuing panic she managed to drive down Washington Place and on into Washington Square (out of control) leaving a trail of death and mutilation behind her which was in the papers for a week afterwards....lots of editorials about "Is 125 too old to be driving? Yes or No?" So, we have the worst factory fire AND the worst hit and run on the same corner.

And do yourself a favor- avoid the Triangle Fire movie from the 1970's. Unless you are of singularly masochistic bent, there is nothing there worth seeing.....even if it has a happy ending in which the young lovers survive RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FIRE by holding one another REAL close. With Charlotte Rae; Tovah Feldshuh; David Dukes AND Tom "Happy Days" Bosley as one of the owners.
 
Dec 12, 1999
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Shelley, James,

That's a nice site on the Triangle Factory Fire. For your information, there's a recently published book on the famous 1940s circus fire that killed approximately the same number of people. I think it was in Connecticut or New Jersey. An old fashioned Big Top went up in flames. One of the children in the audience was Charles Nelson Reilly, who continues to suffer PTSD symptoms from the experience. I think the book is called "The Great Circus Fire" or something like that. It was published last year. The cause of the fire is still not known.
 

Jim Kalafus

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Jan- That book was well written, but had a tendency to overstate the disturbing, and as a result one feels kind of unclean after reading it. Since the tent was of canvas and waterproofed with gasoline and paraffin, it would seem that just about anything would have set it off.
 
Mar 28, 2002
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Reviving a very old thread here!

Jim must be referring to The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal TV movie of 1979. It wasn't that bad! I saw it last night. Sure, there was a lot of artistic licence taken, I bet, but I think they captured the whole sweatshop and colleague camaraderie and boss aspects quite well. A few questions, if I may:

Were any of the people depicted in the film based on real characters?

Who was the mystery man who beckoned girls to the windows and ultimately to their deaths? Was his body not found and identified?

Did the boss really escape with his young daughter across a ladder to a building opposite?

Did the mother really escape on the top of the elevator by jumping on the elevator cable and shimming down it?

According to the film, at least one door was locked and attempts were made to crowbar it open without success. Is this true?

The two characters that Jim talks about above - the couple in the embrace, the David Dukes character - I got the impression that he was injured and was unable to be saved and so his sweetheart stayed with him until they were both consumed in the flames. Did this not happen?

I have more questions but I'll save those for later!

Cheers,

Boz
 

Jim Kalafus

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>Who was the mystery man who beckoned girls to the windows and ultimately to their deaths? Was his body not found and identified?

He was based on a man who came to the second or third window from the Washington Place/Greene Street corner, on the Washington Place side of the building. He, apparently, stood on the Windowsill, and helped a number of girls up on to it, one at a time. He held them away from the building and let them drop. He was seen to kiss the final girl before throwing her from the window, and then jumped after her.

>Did the boss really escape with his young daughter across a ladder to a building opposite?

Yes. Two of his daughters, and their governess, were in the building in the executive suite, when the fire broke out. I believe, however that the daughters and the governess were sent down in the elevator, while the father went up a flight to the roof. Don't quote me on that, 'though.

(I have wondered until how recently the 8 year old daughter survived? She gave no late-life interviews of which I know.)

>Did the mother really escape on the top of the elevator by jumping on the elevator cable and shimming down it?

Several survived by doing that. 22 died trying. One great quotye, from the 1960s involved a girl who survived because she ahd a new sealskin muff she did not want to lose, and it protected her hands from burning as she slid down. Praised, in 1911, for her presence of mind, in the 1960s she laughingly refered to her 'presence of mind' as being Vanity.

>According to the film, at least one door was locked and attempts were made to crowbar it open without success. Is this true?

Partially. The door WAS kept locked, but the key was mounted to the lock and affixed to the door by a string. The prosecution introduced several girls who claimed to have 'turned the key.' So, it was then possible for the defense to argue that with 6 or 7 girls turning the key, it was entirely possible that they locked themselves in! The door was also half wood and half wired glass.

Understanding the mechanics of the fire can clear up a lot of the misconceptions about what happened. The fire broke out in a scrap bin on the 8th floor, a few minutes before closing time. Nobody on the 8th vloor died, although a few who went up a flight to find relatives or fight the fire did. The 8th floor manager had to phone the switchboard on the tenth floor in order to put in an alarm to the ninth. The switchboard operator, upon hearing of the massive fire, went to find her sister without alerting the 9th floor.

The Triangle factory was "L" shaped, with stairwells in the far corners of the "L" and an enclosed air shaft formed by the inner side of the angle. The fire blew out of the 8th floor and was sucked up the airshaft, explodign into the 9th and 10th floors almost simultaneously. On 10, teh alarm havign been sounded, everyoen was en route to an exit and so, again, all but one survived. On the 9th, there was no warning, and to make things worse, the fire entered in such a way that it formed a barrier between the two staircases. Girls who ran to the Greene Street Staircase quickly, or were trapped on that side of the barrier, were able to shield their faces, run into the fire, and up to the roof. Girls who ran to the Washington Place door found a huge frantic mob trying to get the door open.

For these women and men, there was only one option-the two elevators. Nearly half of the 100 or so who escaped from 9th floor did so by jamming into the tiny cars, but with the fire only a few feet away people first began jumping and then being pushed by others into the shaft. Those who survived did so by rollign tight against the wall, out of the range of impact of those who fell the 9 stories burning 'like comets.'

Perhaps a dozen girls tried to wait the fire out by hiding en masse in the bathroom, and all died of burns after smoke inhalation.

8 minutes after the fire entered the 9th floor, there was no way to escape. The first wave of jumpers- 23 of them- went from the Washington Place windows and did so in orderly fashion, coming down feet first and struggling to remain upright until they hit the sidewalk. They jumped by choice.

The final 'act' of the fire was the worst to witness. Men and women who tried to reach the Greene Street staircase too late, found themselves hemmed in against the row of windows facing Greene. They did not opt to jump, but the fire drove them backwards, up on the ledges, where they remained packed in tight until the fire was upon them, and then they were driven out, on fire, in groups of 5, 6, 7... these people mostly died, instantly, of fractured skulls, but at least ten of the 56 who died on Greene Street survived the plunge by landing atop dead co-workers, but ultimately all died within the next week, of infection, shock, or internal injuries.

The fire was under control in 15 minutes, and extinguished in less than an hour.

Of those who jumped, only a girl named Frieda Velakowski was able to describe the fall. She died after giving a brief account of standing on the ledge, seeing things 'swirl' and then going black.
 

Jim Kalafus

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>I have more questions but I'll save those for later!

Fire away!
happy.gif



If you scan down this link, you can see a photo of the Triangle Building (formal name, the Asch building) as it looked in 2004. Post 1431. Washington Place on the left, Greene Street on the right. The fatal ninth floor is the second from the top. Post 1678 shows a spot on the Greene Street side of the building where multiple victims jumped together and collapsed the sidewalk~ of all the 1911 images, perhaps the one which best conveys how horrible it all was.

https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/discus/messages/6937/93809.html?1106006305
 
Mar 28, 2002
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Well, Jim, many thanks for the replies and the link to the photos. The movie gave the impression that most of the people trapped on the tenth floor got away somehow or other and that the eighth floor was totally consumed, along with it's workforce. The ninth floor was barely mentioned, I think, although that was probably me getting confused with the eighth. Either way, the whole thing looked and reads as terrifying.

There was one girl in the film who jumped nine floors onto a circular blanket-thingy being held out by firemen and survived. Also a girl witnessed from inside the building the chap who was holding women out and dropping them. She was rescued by firemen seconds after resigning herself to her fate. I assume these two girls were real?

I was forced to draw parallels in my mind about the people who jumped from the World Trade Centre, knowing that to jump was to certain death but was better than what was happening behind them.

Cheers,

Boz
 

Jim Kalafus

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>There was one girl in the film who jumped nine floors onto a circular blanket-thingy being held out by firemen and survived.

No. One girl who landed in a net DID survive, and managed to walk about three steps before internal injuries killed her, but that's it. In all the other cases, the nets "bowed" so much, or ripped under impact, and the victim ended up hitting the sidewalk anyway.

In the 1946 Winecoff Hotel Fire, a pair of sisters jumped for nets from the 9th floor and survived, but with severe injuries. Both broke their backs, and one also broke her neck. A woman who jumped from the 7th floor also survived, but with extreme injuries. The famed "jumping woman" in the Pulitzer Prize winning photo, a secretery named Daisy Macomber, survived as well, losing a leg and suffering innumerable other injuries , and steadfastly refusing to identify herself as the subject of that horrible photo. The Winecoff, btw, has been restored and reopened as the boutique Ellis Hotel.

> Also a girl witnessed from inside the building the chap who was holding women out and dropping them. She was rescued by firemen seconds after resigning herself to her fate.

Fictional. No one survived inside the 9th floor. The fire department found a pile of ten-twenty bodies several feet inside the Washington Place door, which was those who struggled until the last minute to get the locked door open and, evidently, turned as a group and tried to head back into the work area. Everyone who hid in the bathroom died- it was the most fatal area inside the building- and a smaller group was found in the vicinity of the Greene Street stairs, which constituted the last of those who attemtped to run through the fire to the roof and did not make it. 23 of those who died were men, the remaining 123, women. The girl who survived in the building was created for the obligatory happy ending.

Also a girl witnessed from inside the building the chap who was holding women out and dropping them. She was rescued by firemen seconds after resigning herself to her fate. I assume these two girls were real?
 

James Tierney

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I love that topic, Max Stuert or something like that represented owner Max Blanck and Isaac Harris in the trial for the charges of manslaughter. The fire killer 146 people, the doors were locked and the fire started on the 8th floor when a cutter dropped a ciggerate in a scrap bin. I know alot more bout it but it would be as long as a novel.
 

Jim Kalafus

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Steuer had a VERY easy job. The door was kept locked, but the key was kept attached to it by a string. All it took was three separate women to say "I turned the key, but could not get the door open," under oath, as happened, and the waters were forever muddied regarding whether the women inadvertantly locked themselves in before the crush against the inward opening door made it a moot point.

Add to that the fact that one woman, early on, DID turn the key, got the door open, and saw that the fire was in the stairwell one floor below, and what one has is fairly good evidence that the unfortunate workers locked themselves in.
 
May 27, 2007
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Add to that the fact that one woman, early on, DID turn the key, got the door open, and saw that the fire was in the stairwell one floor below, and what one has is fairly good evidence that the unfortunate workers locked themselves in.
Fire can be pretty scary. I'm sure if a fire was coming up at me I'd lock myelf in as well.

My Grandmother remembers seeing a union film from the 1950's that was based on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The film and fire did help spur better working conditions. Even if those women were well paid and locked themselves in that factory there still was the fact that there was never was adequate fire equipment or any kind of drill in what to do if there was a fire. Plus the fire helped draw public attention to places of employment that I'm sure were Sweatshops.
 

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