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The Triangle Factory Fire
downloadDescription:

Text courtesy of Jewish Women's Archive and Travelgoat

The Triangle Waist Factory was located on the top three floors of the Asch Building on Washington Place. More than 500 workers labored here long hours, six days a week. Late in the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started...

downloadDescription:

Text courtesy of Jewish Women's Archive and Travelgoat

The Triangle Waist Factory was located on the top three floors of the Asch Building on Washington Place. More than 500 workers labored here long hours, six days a week. Late in the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started on the eighth floor. Flames soon engulfed the factory. Within a half hour, 146 workers, more than half of them Jewish women, were dead.

By the time of the fire, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were already known as the "Shirtwaist Kings." These two Russian Jews had arrived in New York in the early 1890s. They formed a partnership that quickly became one of the most successful in the garment industry. In 1901, the year the Asch Building was built, the Triangle Company signed a lease for the 9th floor. By 1909 the factory had expanded to the 8th and 10th floors. In 1911, the Triangle Waist Co. was the largest factory of its type in New York, turning out 2,000 shirtwaists per day.

Blanck and Harris were known for their disregard of workers’ rights and existing laws. Triangle employees had to buy their own materials, including needles and thread, pay for any mistakes they made, could not talk or sing during the work day, and suffered the embarrassment of monitored bathroom breaks.

The women working at the Triangle Factory at the time of the 1911 fire were mainly young immigrants from Italy and the shtetls of Eastern Europe. They had survived pogroms and poverty, made the journey to America (often alone), and were struggling to establish themselves in a new land, while saving to support and bring over family members. They knew that conditions at Triangle were unpleasant at best) but that a job there was also desirable: the factory was almost always busy, which meant steady pay.

Fires were common in the garment industry, perhaps because insurance provided a way for owners to get rid of excess inventory and keep pace with changing fashions without suffering a financial loss. By 1911, there had already been numerous small fires at the Triangle factory.

The catastrophic fire began near closing time. The fire marshal would determine that, despite the shop’s ban on smoking, a cigarette tossed in a scrap bin on the 8th floor started the fire. The flammable material all around the shop —imagine the cotton scraps in the bin, the tissue paper patterns on the tables, the half-finished blouses, the cotton fibers in the air— made it inevitable that the fire would spread rapidly. There were fire pails scattered about, but they were of little help.

About 180 people were working on the 8th floor; some tried to escape through the regular exit on the Greene Street side of the building. At the end of a normal day, workers were funneled into a line at this door so that guards could search their bags for a piece of lace, scrap of fabric, or a blouse that might be hidden there. Other workers tried to escape through the Washington Street door only to find that it was locked. Precious minutes passed before anyone on the 9th floor was alerted to what has happening one flight below, making the fire all the more deadly.

Some workers managed to escape by using the elevators until they stopped working; others climbed onto the rickety fire escape. When terrified workers approached the stairway on the Washington Street side, they found themselves jammed against doors that were designed to swing inward. A machinist finally found a key and opened the doors, allowing some workers to flee down the stairs.

Fire engines left the station in less than two minutes after the alarm sounded. As they approached the building, they saw flames in all the windows on the 8th floor and workers struggling to escape. Neither their ladders nor their hoses reached past the 6th floor, which meant they were about 30 feet too short to help the trapped workers.

The fire was so intense and spread so quickly that within five minutes desperate workers began jumping. The firemen set up their nets, but no jumpers survived. The nets were simply not strong to catch bodies dropped from such height.

The conflagration was over within a half an hour. By 5:15, the fire was out on all three floors.

Only five days after the fire, Blanck and Harris reopened for business in a different building on University Place. They would remain in business together for several more years and never changed their ways. The new factory was not fireproof, nor did it have fire escapes or adequate exits.
It could not be proven that Blanck and Harris had intentionally locked the doors of the Asch building and their criminal trial for manslaughter ended with an acquittal. In fact, they received a $200,000 insurance settlement. In 1914, Blanck and Harris settled 23 individual civil suits by paying each of the families a week’s pay, or $75 per life lost.
The Asch building continued to operate as a factory until 1929 when its new owner donated it to NYU. It was designated a National Historical Landmark in 1991.

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