At around closing time 100 years ago on March 25, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch Building on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in New York City.
It was the start of what would be known as the deadliest workplace disaster in the city until the attack on the World Trade Center. Due to the fire and the horrific manner in which it took the lives of 146 people, a new kind of insurance was born in New York and building safety standards were instituted — standards that insurers today still devote resources to verify when underwriting a commercial property policy.
Unlike insurers in 1911, insurers today “focus constantly on life safety, fire prevention, and having their policyholders maintain important fire protection features,” says Mike Barry, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.). Insurers in 1911 focused on selling more and larger policies, not risk reduction, he adds.
(For an interview Barry did with David Von Drehle, author of "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America," click here.)
The eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building were occupied by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and its 500 employees, a majority of them female Italian and European Jewish immigrants. In this country for just a few months, some were in their early teens, and many were packed side-by-side on the ninth floor at sewing machines on long rows of tables among baskets of cloth for the shirtwaists — a popular garment of the time. Factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were known as the “Shirtwaist Kings.”
When the fire broke out, operators on the eighth floor phoned those on the tenth, where the executives and other workers were located. A vast majority escaped from these floors. No one told the 200 workers on the ninth floor, however, and when those workers smelled smoke and saw fire, they made a mad rush for the exits. The only fire escape collapsed as people tried to use it. One door opened inward; another was locked. Desperate women piled on top of each other. Reports say that when bodies inside the building were recovered, some of the women’s fingernails were torn off as they clawed to get out.
Firefighters responded, but their ladders only reached the sixth floor.
A half hour later, more than 60 workers had chosen suicide over suffocating or burning to death. Witnesses and emergency personnel at first thought the jumpers were bags of clothing. Then they realized and watched as many women fell to the ground, sometimes in pairs, holding hands.
Blanck and Harris, charged with manslaughter, stood trial for their roles in the senseless deaths and were acquitted. It was alleged that they kept the door locked to keep workers from taking breaks, stealing, and to keep union organizers out. The factory, with its intimidated, young immigrant women, was a non-union shop although women’s unions were organizing workers in the clothing trades throughout the city. Strikes during recent prior years for basic workers’ rights and safe conditions made headlines.
Owners, who profited form their fire insurance, eventually settled with families for about $75 per victim. There was no workers’ compensation. About 400,000 people turned out for the funeral procession on April 5. The outrage and sympathy from the tragedy fueled reform, as they demanded change.
“As a result of the Triangle Fire — and it was a direct result — there were 32 statutes enacted in New York State that ameliorated or improved working conditions within a few years,” said former state Sen. Serphin Maltese in an interview with WNYC radio. Maltese’s grandmother (Catherine, 39) and two aunts (Lucia, 20, and Rosaria, 14) died in the fire.
“For the next 30 years, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire gave this momentum, so by 1938 we had the Fair Labor Standards Act, minimum wage laws, and time-and-a-half laws for overtime. Workers also had the right to organize,” said Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, in a video produced by the group. “The middle class was built in this struggle coming out of Triangle.”
Three months after the fire, the Factory Investigation Commission was started to document workplace safety issues. Its chief investigator was Frances Perkins, an eyewitness to the fire and fervent labor reformer. The commission’s scathing reports led to widespread workplace improvements — sprinkler systems (available in 1911 but rarely installed due to cost); smoke alarms and detectors; fire drills; fire escapes; multiple staircases; and exit doors had to be unlocked and swing outward.
In 1914, New York passed a workers’ compensation law (the state’s first attempt at passing a similar law was deemed unconstitutional. Wisconsin was the first to pass such a law in 1911). In July 1914, the New York State Insurance Fund began offering workers’ compensation insurance. Perkins became the NYSIF commissioner when she was named New York’s first woman industrial commissioner by then-Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1929. Later, she was named U.S. Secretary of Labor when Roosevelt became president.
The NYSIF, forged from the Triangle Fire, remains the largest writer of workers’ compensation insurance in New York.
Meanwhile, building safety is verified by property insurers, and companies with strong risk management practices are preferred and rewarded with lower premiums.
The deaths of 146 people on March 25, 1911 remind us there is value to life, as well as property.