The Triangle Fire, March 25, 1911
by Leon Stein
When quitting bells rang at 4:30 p.m. and the sewing machines on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company shop went suddenly silent, confusion erupted at the cutting tables. People ran. Someone screamed! Then fire curled up from under the wooden tables, touched the paper patterns hanging overhead, turning them into burning trolleys.
Triangle occupied the top three floors of the 10-story Asch building, one block east of New York's Washington Square Park. It employed as many as 1,000 workers but on Saturday, March 25, 1911—a short workday—there were only about 500.
No alarm was sounded or sent. For precious minutes, workers on the ninth and tenth floors knew nothing of the danger below. Unpredictably, the fire leaped to the top floor, engulfing the ninth story.
Hearing the crash of glass, operators zoomed their elevators upward. Stairway doors remained closed by the press of the crowd or by bolted locks until they were pried open. Some people scrambled down the circular staircase; others rushed to the roof. Elevator doors were smashed and a few workers jumped down the shaft, plummeting to the tops of the cars below or sliding down the greased cables.
On the ninth floor, scores of workers trapped in the aisles between the machines were slowly backed by the fire to the windows—their sole means of escape.
The tragedy stunned the city. For days, crowds milled around the blackened Asch building. People besieged the morgue crying out the names of loved ones. Out of the churches and synagogues and from the unions and reform groups arose a clamor to name those responsible for this tragedy and to punish the guilty. The press railed against the politicians who alibied each other.
The general strike of the shirtwaist makers, touched off at Triangle two years earlier in 1909 and led by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, had targeted the abhorrent system of inside subcontracting and had sought safety measures. Triangle resisted and through lockouts, scabbing, bribery, violence, and the establishment of a company union, became the sole exception to the general victory of the shirtwaist makers.
After the fire, it was found that the Triangle Company had locked exit doors during working hours. There were no sprinklers, the fire hoses had rotted, the circular staircase was too narrow, and the single fire escape in the rear had collapsed dumping its human load to the concrete backyard with its spiked fence.
One-hundred forty-six lives had been snuffed out. Property was safeguarded. Through overlapping insurance, the Triangle Company owners received compensation far in excess of proven losses, averaging $445 per worker killed. A year after the disaster, a court found the owners "not guilty" of negligence.
Call for Reform
Governor Dix appointed a factory investigating commission that made history in its findings and recommendations for reform. For such members as Alfred E. Smith, Robert F. Wagner, Frances Perkins, Henry Stimson, and Henry Morgenthau, their investigation provided schooling for new liberal political leadership.
Forty years ago, Frances Perkins (who had been President Franklin Roosevelt's Labor Secretary) noted that "the stirring of conscience" caused by the fire was a stimulus for the New Deal. Through the terrible martyrdom of these 146 lives, Americans learned of human needs beyond collective bargaining; that workers could not win fire escapes on the picket lines.
Government could no longer close its eyes to industrial callousness nor shun human responsibility for workers' health and safety. In a free society, workers enjoyed not only the right to strike and to bargain collectively, but also to lobby and legislate in the political arena.
Today, this right to a safe workplace is protected by the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The horror of the Triangle Fire should serve as a grim reminder why such protection is still needed.
Leon Stein was long time editor of Justice, the newspaper of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. His book, The Triangle Fire is the classic account of the famous tragedy.
From the New York Labor History Association News Service.