The Not-So-Great Escape

Remembering the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Disasters, calamities, tragedies, or catastrophes—no matter what we call them, these events happen on a regular basis, and more recent occurrences tend to cancel out memories of the older ones. However, the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City has not been forgotten, as its 100-year anniversary last spring prompted public media to recall the horrific event. Perhaps it was because many of the deaths resembled those of the disaster on Sept. 11, 2001, when trapped victims jumped or fell to their fate rather than perish in the flames.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were, by far, the worse of the two disasters, resulting in far more deaths and far greater destruction. It was the Triangle Factory fire, however, that led to the greatest changes of the early 20th century as politicians began to look more closely at the sweatshops and child labor that were rampant across the nation. Ultimately, however, very little has changed. Eighty years later, on Sept. 3, 1991, 25 people were burned to death and 49 injured in a Hamlet, N.C. chicken processing plant where, as in the Triangle fire, exits were either locked or blocked.

It was not until after the Nov. 28, 1942 fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston that fire safety doors became a requirement in public places, opening to the outside so that victims would not be trapped and trampled. The fire codes of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) would seem to be sufficient, yet hardly a year passes without some fire-related tragedy involving locked or barricaded doors, a deadly impediment often initiated by management to prevent wrongful entry or keeping patrons from exiting without paying a bill. Blocked doors were a factor in the Southgate, Ky. Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in May of 1977 that killed some 160 patrons and injured many more. Then, on Feb. 20, 2003, 100 people died after a lack of exterior doors prevented their escape from a fire at Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I.

Can Common Sense Be Legislated?

Is a safe environment or workplace possible? Perhaps, suggests Caroline McDonald in her Dec. 13, 2010 article in National Underwriter titled, “OSHA Ineffective in Preventing Some Types of Worker Injuries …” Citing a Workers’ Compensation Research Institute report prepared by Michael Silverstein, assistant director for industrial safety and health in the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, McDonald reported that since passage of the Occupational Safety & Health Act in 1970, workplace injuries and illnesses have decreased, from 11 per 100 full-time employees in 1972 to only 4 per 100 in 2006, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But is that because of greater safety and enforcement? For one thing, the workplace has changed; there are fewer factories and more “desk jobs” in the 21st century than there were in the 1970s. Dangerous jobs have moved overseas, although construction and mining jobs still remain hazardous.              

Silverstein cited the continuing high death rate in construction site trench cave-ins and an even higher death rate among foreign-born workers, who often work in temporary jobs with little or no safety training as an example. He noted that “most workplaces are not fully compliant with OSHA standards. About 65 percent of OSHA inspections result in at least one violation being cited.” Many politicians nevertheless oppose greater funding for OSHA inspections, and OSHA is often a political target.


Very Little Compensation in 1911

In the 1911 Triangle fire, New York had no workers’ compensation law. It was not until 1913 that the state finally passed such a law, which was based largely on the fact that in the Triangle fire victims and their families had little recourse against the owners. An average of $75 was paid to each victim, but the fire stirred recognition of the dangers in the city sweatshops. By 1911, a growing number of states were passing workers’ compensation laws, although many were just as quickly declared unconstitutional by conservative state courts.

A “safe” public place is often a misleading concept. Atlanta’s Winecoff Hotel was considered fireproof when 119 people died in a Dec. 7, 1946 fire, now believed to have been set by a disgruntled gambler. Yet of 10 key factors that made the Winecoff fire especially fatal, nearly every one was repeated in the construction of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Although the MGM structure met county codes, a Nov. 21, 1980 fire killed 85 people and injured more than 700. One key factor in both was that hotel personnel had little or no training about what to do in the event of a fire. When the fire department entered the lobby of the MGM Grand that morning, gamblers were still playing the slots in the smoke-filled game rooms.

Fire experts, risk managers, and insurers know the factors that can make some locations more toxic than others. In the Triangle fire, the bits of thread and cloth scattered on the floor burst into flames. In the Feb. 10, 2008 Imperial Sugar Co. plant explosion in Ga. that killed 14 and injured many more, the culprit was sugar dust.

Grain elevators are also producers of explosive dusts, and chemical plants are notorious sources of fatal explosions, including the multi-fatality Atlas Powder Plant (a DuPont facility) explosion in Lake Hopatcong, N.J. in December of 1920, or the Feb. 7, 2010, Kleen Energy Systems power station explosion in Conn. and the March 26, 2011, Louisville, Ky. chemical plant explosion. Industrial fires, fatalities, and explosions seem almost commonplace, sometimes not becoming more than a local news event.

Yet after the March 2011 Tokyo Electric nuclear plant meltdown and explosions, worldwide attention was drawn to the hazards of living in a modern society. Strict rules and guidelines help, but only if they are carefully obeyed and officially monitored by a responsible governmental agency.

The Triangle Fire Tragedy

Stories about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire are legends. I first heard of the event while reading Leon Uris’s 1976 novel Trinity, in which Uris carefully described the event, but changed its location to Northern Ireland. Tales of a ghostly figure leading Triangle girls to the ninth story window to jump add to the tragic horror of the conflagration.

The fire occurred on a Saturday at about 4:45 p.m. when the 575 workers in the factory were finishing a seven-hour overtime shift. Huge piles of clippings, cloth, and thread were stacked across the eighth, ninth, and 10th floors when someone carelessly discarded a cigarette. Noticing the flames, a few workers tried to douse them with buckets of water, but there were no fire hoses on standpipes or sprinklers in the ten-story “fireproof” building. There were 225 employees on the floor where the fire occurred.

“Fifty cutters immediately headed down the Greene Street stairway upon hearing the first shouts of ‘Fire!’” reported Paul Hashagen, a retired FDNY firefighter, in the March 2011 issue of Firehouse Magazine, a publication for fire services. Most of the women pressed toward the narrow exit on the Washington Place side and found the door locked. After several frantic moments, a man broke the lock and the women squeezed through and descended in single file until the lead girl fainted, blocking the stairs. Behind her on the eighth floor, heat, smoke and flame pressed down on the trapped workers. Several panic-stricken young women who were cut off and unable to reach the small elevator or the crowded stairs were driven to the windows. 

“Above their heads,” Hashagen continued, “sheets of flames pulsed out the eighth floor windows and into the open windows on the ninth and tenth floors, igniting the extremely flammable fabrics and cuttings on each floor. The first warning of fire the 300 workers on the ninth floor had was the wave of fire suddenly pouring over their heads. A mad scramble ensued as each one tried to squeeze through the 20-inch opening that led to the Greene Street stairway. Others frantically made their way to a single small fire escape that was soon overcrowded.”

In a New York Times report on March 26, 1911, it was noted that “Samuel Bernstein, the waist factory’s foreman, and Max Rothberg, his first assistant, were standing together on the eighth floor when the screams of girls attracted their attention to the southeast corner of the large room. They rang for the elevators, which were on the south side of the building, and Rothberg telephoned the fire department and the police department.” On the street, a passerby saw the smoke and pulled the corner fire alarm box, #289. Within minutes, Engine 72 was on its way.

Hashagen reports that Engine 72 was a 1909 Knox high-pressure hose wagon, the city’s first motorized apparatus. The next arriving engines were horse-drawn. Battalion Chief Edward Worth took command, commenting, “As I turned the corner at Fourth and Green, I saw that the fire was already in possession of the eighth floor. Nobody showed at the windows of that floor. From the ninth floor, people were jumping.” More engines arrived as multiple alarms were triggered. The firemen tried to keep the women from jumping, but were unsuccessful. The “life nets” being used to catch jumpers were ineffective because of the height from which the women were jumping.

Across the street on the 10th floor of another building, 50 law students were attending a lecture by a former New Jersey sheriff-turned-law professor. After spotting the flames, the lecturing sheriff ordered his students up to the roof. There, they found two ladders that had been left by painters, and although the two buildings were 15 feet apart, the students were able to lower ladders to the women trapped below, as several students climbed down and rescued some of those on the floors affected by the fire. 

The New York Times reported that “men, panic-stricken, fought with the women to get to the ladder, but Kremmer (one of the students) shoved them away and let the women out of the danger zone first. More than 100 women and 20 men escaped this way. Another hundred reached the building north of the burning one, whose roof was only five feet higher and could be reached without a ladder. How many reached the streets through the stairways nobody knew, as they were foreigners who spoke little English and fled for their homes in the lower east side as soon as they gained the sidewalk.” It was not until the blaze was out and bodies were moved to the morgue that the true horror of the fire was realized.

The company, according to the New York Times, was owned by the partnership of Max Harris and Isaac Blanck, both of whom escaped the fire. Discussion immediately followed regarding possible charges against New York’s then-mayor William Jay Gaynor, but instead the fire led to the creation of the Ladies Waist & Dressmakers Union, which was a forerunner of International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Also, founded in 1911 was the Factory Investigation Committee headed by Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner, both of whom would later become prominent New York politicians. The committee also included notables such as Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor in the Franklin Roosevelt administration.

In the frantic sweatshop environment of the early 20th century, a tragedy such as the Triangle fire was inevitable. The World Trade Center disaster was far less so. Yet unless those in a position to recognize risk and take the necessary—and often expensive—steps to avoid or reduce hazards, similar deadly catastrophes are bound to recur.

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