Filed Under:Claims, Catastrophe & Restoration

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.

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.              

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.

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

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.

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