Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: March 25, 1911
On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village of New York City caught fire. It would become known as the worst industrial fire in the area’s history and one of the deadliest in the nation. The fire caused the tragic deaths of 123 women and 23 men. Most were of Italian and Jewish descent with ages ranging from 14 to 23. The oldest to perish was 43. They died from not only the fire and smoke inhalation but also jumping from the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the factory to escape the blaze.
What Caused the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Tragedy?
The fire first started in a waste bin at 4:40 pm on a Saturday. Some have theorized many different causes including cigarette butts in a wastebasket, hot or faulty engines of the sewing machines and possible intentional acts due to a recent string of arson fires in the area. Many pointed out that since profits had fallen at the factory the company may have had a motive to set the blaze for insurance money.
Despite these other considerations, the fire marshal’s investigation revealed that either a match or a cigarette was the most likely culprit. Unfortunately, the wastebasket was surrounded by two months’ worth of dry cuttings which quickly ignited.
Why did so Many Die in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire?
During the time period, it was a common practice to lock the doors of the stairwells to prevent workers from sneaking off during non-break hours or from stealing from the company. Unfortunately, the workers found themselves trapped in the ensuing pandemonium. Fires blocked the freight elevators and the fire exit that descended to Green Street. Some of the elevators were able to rescue people but eventually, the fire stopped their operation. In desperation and fear, workers started to jump from the windows and down the elevator shoots to escape the flames.
The fire department arrived in a very rapid fashion but was unable to successfully battle the blaze. Also, their ladders were too short to reach the workers as they screamed from the windows for help. As people threw themselves from the windows, bodies started to accumulate around the perimeter. It became difficult for firefighters to even get close to the building due to a large number of dead.
The Brown Building Today
Today, the building still stands as testimony to the unsafe conditions that cost so many their lives. It became a National Historic Landmark and a landmark for New York City. The 1901 structure is referred to as the Brown Building and is now a part of the New York University.
Out of the tragedy, New York State created some of the first worker protection laws. Fire-prevention legislation passed along with factory inspection laws, the first International Ladies Garment Workers Union formed to provide better work conditions.
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