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.
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.