NEW YORK, NY Three stories of a ten-floor building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place were burned yesterday, and while the fire was going on 141 young men and women at least 123 of them mere girls were burned to death or killed by jumping to the pavement below.
... All over in Half an Hour.
Nothing like it has been seen in New York since the burning of the General Slocum. [An East River steamboat fire that took over 1,000 lives in 1904.] The fire was practically all over in half an hour. It was confined to three floors the eighth, ninth, and tenth of the building. But it was the most murderous fire that New York has seen in many years.
The victims who are now lying at the morgue waiting for some one to identify them by a tooth or the remains of a burned shoe were mostly girls of from 16 to 23 years of age. They were employed at making shirtwaists by the Triangle Waist Company, the principal owners of which are Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. Most of them could barely speak English. Many of them came from Brooklyn. Almost all were the main support of their hard-working families.
...The building was fireproof and the owners had put their trust in that. In fact, after the flames had done their worst last night, the building hardly showed a sign. Only the stock within it and the girl employes were burned.
A heap of corpses lay on the sidewalk for more than an hour. The firemen were too busy dealing with the fire to pay any attention to people whom they supposed beyond their aid.
|After the flames had done their worst last night, the building
hardly showed |
a sign. Only the stock within it and the girl employes [sic] were burned.
The Triangle Waist Company was the only sufferer by the disaster. There are other concerns in the building, but it was Saturday and the other companies had let their people go home. Messrs. Harris and Blanck, however, were busy and their girls and some men stayed.
Leaped Out of the Flames
At 4:40 o'clock, nearly five hours after the employes in the rest of the building had gone home, the fire broke out. The one little fire escape in the interior was never resorted to by any of the doomed victims. Some of them escaped by running down the stairs, but in a moment or two this avenue was cut off by flame. The girls rushed to the windows and looked down at Greene Street, 100 feet below them. Then one poor, little creature jumped. There was a plate glass protection over part of the sidewalk, but she crashed through it, wrecking it and breaking her body into a thousand pieces.
Then they all began to drop. The crowd yelled, "Don't jump!" [How times have changed ...] but it was jump or be burned the proof of which is found in the fact that fifty burned bodies were taken from the ninth floor alone.
They jumped, they crashed through broken glass, they crushed themselves to death on the sidewalk. Of those who stayed behind it is better to say nothing except what a veteran policeman said as he gazed at a headless and charred trunk on the Greene Street sidewalk hours after the worst cases had been taken out:
... "Is it a man or a woman?" asked the reporter.
"It's human, that's all you can tell," answered the policeman.
It was just a mass of ashes, with blood congealed on what probably had been the neck.
Messrs. Harris and Blanck were in the building, but they escaped. They carried with them Mr. Blanck's children and a governess, and they fled over the roofs. Their employes did not know the way, because they had been in the habit of using the two freight elevators, and one of these elevators was not in service when the fire broke out.
... Fire Nets Prove Useless Firemen Helpless to Save
How the fire started no one knows. On the three upper floors of the building were 600 employes of the waist company, 500 of whom were girls. The victims mostly Italians, Russians, Hungarians, and Germans were girls and men who had been employed by the firm of Harris & Blanck ... after the strike in which the Jewish girls, formerly employed, had become unionized and had demanded better working conditions. The building had experienced four recent fires and had been reported to the Building Department as unsafe, on account of the insufficiency of its exits.
The building itself was of the most modern construction and classed as fireproof. What burned so quickly and disastrously for the victims were shirtwaists, hanging on lines above tiers of workers, sewing machines placed so closely together that there was hardly aisle room for the girls between them, and shirtwaist trimmings and cuttings which littered the floors above the eighth and ninth stories.
Girls had begun leaping from the eighth story windows before the firemen arrived. The firemen had trouble bringing their apparatus into position because of the bodies which strewed the pavement and sidewalks. While more bodies crashed down among them, they worked with desperation to run their ladders into position and to spread firenets.
One fireman, running ahead of a hose wagon, which halted to avoid running over a body, spread a firenet, and two more seized hold of it. A girl's body coming end over end, struck on the side of it, and there was hope that she would be the first one of the score who had already jumped to be saved.
|Five girls ... leaped together, clinging to each other, with fire streaming back from their hair and dresses.||... Three other girls, who had leaped for it a moment after the first one, struck it on top of her, and all four rolled out and lay still upon the pavement. Five girls who stood together at a window close to the Greene Street corner held their places while a fire ladder was worked toward them, but which stopped at its full length two stories lower down.|
... One girl, who waved a handkerchief at the crowd, leaped from a window adjoining the New York University Building on the westward. Her dress caught on a wire, and the crowd watched her hang there till her dress burned free and she came toppling down. Many jumped whom the firemen believe they could have saved ... [But] none waited for the firemen to attempt to reach them with the scaling ladders.
All Would Soon Have Been Out.
... Nearly all were dressed for the street. The fire had flashed through their workroom just as they were expecting the signal to leave the building. In ten minutes more all would have been out, as many had stopped work in advance of the signal and had started to put on their wraps.
... When the Fire Was Discovered.
Samuel Berstein, the waist factory's foreman, and Max Rothberg, his first assistant, were standing together when the screams of girls attracted their attention to the southeast corner of the large room. They rang for the elevators, of which two were in the south side of the building, and Rothberg telephoned to the fire Department and the Police Department. Two hundred girls were working on that floor, most of them still at their machines in the narrow aisles that gave them hardly room to move about. Dynamos, used to operate the sewing machines, were in the corner from which the fire was spreading.
The two men attacked it with buckets of water, feeling confident at first they would be able to put it out. In the meantime the girls, screaming loudly and in a panic, rushed for the elevator shaft and the staircase, where they encountered a closed door. Dora Miller of 10 Cannon Street got the door part way open, but it was jammed shut again by the press of people behind her. She struck a glass panel in it with her fists until she made a hole large enough to climb through, and she escaped. Twenty others followed her before the flames reached them, and the rest of those caught on the floor were only discernable as a mass of charred bones when the firemen at last worked their way up the staircase. Berstein and Rothberg escaped by way of the elevator on its last trip to the floor.
... Trapped on the Ninth Floor.
On the ninth story, which like the eighth was filled with sewing machines and was used for cutting and sewing shirtwaists, the girls fared worse than those on the floor below. They crowded about the elevator shaft, but no cars responded to their frantic ringing of the bell. Time after time they saw the cars approach, only to be filled at the eighth and go down again.
... The one little iron fire escape, leading from a rear window, was pitiably inadequate, and it was from this floor that most of those came who fell like paper dolls, end over end, to the pavement.
... Zito, the elevator man, said that on his last trip down he could hear the thud of bodies striking the roof of his car as women jumped from the ninth floor after giving up hope that he would reach them. He heard the rattle of silver from their pay envelopes as it came through the iron grating into the car.
The loss on this floor was not known to the firemen and police until nearly 7 o'clock, when Deputy Fire Chief Binns reached it on the concrete stairway, which remained perfectly solid and unharmed. Binns found the bodies of fifty or more women; those who had not been burned beyond recognition seeming to be mere girls. They were lying in heaps upon the floor, as if they had huddled together near the stairway and elevator shaft, and had been overtaken there by the flames.
... Students Save Some Lives.
The men and women on [the tenth] floor rushed for the roof. The smoke issuing from the was seen by Prof. F. Somner, who was teaching twenty-five young men...on the tenth floor of the law school. Prof. Somner ordered his students to rush to the roof and lower ladders to the roof of the factory building. The New York University building is one story higher than the waist factory building. One ladder was procured and a student named Kremmer descended on it to the roof of the building on fire.
... Men, panic-stricken, fought with the women to get to the ladder, but Kremmer shoved them away and let the women out of the danger zone first. Over 100 women and 20 men escaped this way. Another hundred reached a building north of the burning one, whose roof was only five feet higher and could be reached without a ladder.
... How Many Died.
... A girl on the eighth floor leaped for a fireman's ladder which reached only to the sixth floor. She missed, struck the edge of a life net, and was picked up with her back broken.
|The man embraced the woman and kissed her. Then he hurled her to the street and jumped. Both were killed.|
Another dropped into a tarpaulin held by three men. Her weight tore it from their grasp and she struck the street, breaking almost every bone in her body.
Almost at the same moment a man somersaulted down upon the shoulder of a policeman holding the tarpaulin. He glanced off, struck the sidewalk, and was picked up dead.
[Fire] Chief Croker thought at first it would not go over twenty-five. Then he placed the number at sixty-five the total on the streets and reported from the inside. At 7 o'clock, over two hours after the firemen had come, the dead on the ninth floor were found, and those in the elevator shaft, each find sending the total up beyond the largest estimate previously made.
... Chief Croker's View.
Fire Chief Croker, after the fire had flickered down to a few embers still glowing here and there, spoke vigorously against the men who have opposed his plans for better fire protection. "Look around everywhere," he said, "nowhere will you find fire escapes. They say they don't look sightly. I have tried to force their installation, and only last Friday a manufacturer's association met in Wall Street to oppose my plan and to oppose the sprinkler system, as well as the additional escapes."
"This is just the calamity I have been predicting," said Chief Croker. "There were no outside escapes on this building. I have been advocating and agitating that more fire escapes be put on factory building similar to this. The large loss of life is due to this neglect."
... Scenes at the Morgue.
A few minutes after the first load of fire victims was received at the Bellevue Hospital Morgue the streets were filled with a clamoring throng, which struggled with the reserves stationed about the building in an effort to gain entrance to view the bodies of the dead in the hope of identifying loved ones.
... The police were abused because they would not allow the surging mob in the Morgue, and in many instances they were threatened and had to resort to the use of their nightsticks to keep the struggling mob from breaking in.
... The morgue itself became too crowded, early in the evening, for further storage of bodies, and the Charities Department decided to throw open the long public dock adjoining it. Here as night settled over the city, the bodies were taken from the wagons and laid out, side by side, in double rows along either side of the long docks.
Besides the thirty attendants regularly at the pier, twenty derelicts who had applied at the Municipal Lodging House in East Twenty-sixth Street for a night's rest, were pressed into service for the ghastly work.
Considerable confusion was caused on the pier in numbering the dead. The police of the various precincts had received from the Charities Department small, colored tags bearing numbers to tag the different boxes as soon as the bodies were laid in them. There turned out to be three separate systems of numbers, and the enumeration had to be done all over again.
At 11:30 o'clock, with the mob still storming more and more outside, the police had counted in the Morgue and on the pier 136 bodies 13 men and 122 women. Fifty-six of these were burned beyond all but human semblance and may never be identified. The thousands of clamorers outside could not have identified them, even if the police had let them swarm in on the pier.
... Clung Together in Death.
Two girls, charred beyond all hope of identification, and found in the smoking ruins with their arms clasped around each other's necks, were conveyed to the pier, still together, and placed in one box.
... At midnight, by order of Capt. Gray [of the East 35th Street police station], the door of the Morgue was opened for a brief moment, and the foremost of the surging mob outside, to the number of fifteen, was allowed to enter. The police squad at the doors could hardly keep the rest back, with promises of letting them too, presently enter in groups of fifteen.
|Two girls, charred beyond all hope of identification, with
their arms clasped around each other, were placed in |
... At 1 A.M., eight bodies had been identified by relatives and set aside in sealed boxes. The relatives filed into the improvised Coroner's office in the morgue and tearfully stood in line for their slips permitting them to have the bodies removed. There was a competitive mob of undertakers with their wagons at the outskirts of the crowd ready to do that.
When it was all over, the fire had claimed 146 victims, most of whom were buried during the following week, filling the city with funeral processions. Seven bodies were never identified.
The Triangle owners stood trial for manslaughter, curiously not for the deaths of all 146 victims, but for the death of a single girl, Margaret Schwartz. Despite the public's obvious sympathies, the jury, unpersuaded that the prosecutor had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the owners knew the ninth floor doors were locked at the time of the fire (the point on which their culpability rested), found for the defendants. The pair needed a police escort to get through the mob outside the courthouse.
After three years, the newly-formed New York State Factory Investigating Commission added thirty-six new laws to the labor codes of New York. Among its recommendations, the Commission wanted all doors to open out, fireproof receptacles on every floor of every factory, and automatic sprinklers installed in factories over seven stories tall; gas jets had to be covered; occupany limits were established, which had to be posted; smoking was to be banned and No Smoking signs posted; companies employing over 25 people were to run fire drills every three months, supervised by the fire department. Curiously, the Commission balked on fire alarms they felt that alarms might panic workers during an emergency.
Today the Asch Building is no longer stands and a building belonging to New York University now occupies its former space. The sole physical reminder of the fire is a bronze plaque attached to that building. It reads:
|On this site, 146 workers lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire on March 25, 1911. Out of their martyrdom came new concepts of social responsibility and labor legislation that have helped make American working conditions the finest in the world.|
Ninety-two years after a fire killed 146 garment workers and triggered widespread reform of workplace safety laws, the building that once housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory officially became a city landmark.
On March 25, 2003, at a dedication ceremony yesterday outside the Greenwich Village site, Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined labor representatives and city leaders to commemorate the tragic blaze.
"The Triangle Shirtwaist fire is an unending reminder of our work in protecting New Yorkers from avoidable tragedies," Bloomberg said.
The building, now part of New York University's campus, has been a national landmark since 1991 and remains a powerful symbol for labor activists.
from the New York Daily News, Mar 26, 2003