In one of the darkest moments of America's industrial history, the
Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City burns down,
killing 145 workers, on this day in 1911. The tragedy led to the
development of a series of laws and regulations that better protected
the safety of factory workers.
The Triangle factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was
located in the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building in
downtown Manhattan. It was a sweatshop in every sense of the word: a
cramped space lined with work stations and packed with poor immigrant
workers, mostly teenaged women who did not speak English. At the time
of the fire, there were four elevators with access to the factory
floors, but only one was fully operational and it could hold only 12
people at a time. There were two stairways down to the street, but one
was locked from the outside to prevent theft by the workers and the
other opened inward only. The fire escape, as all would come to see,
was shoddily constructed, and could not support the weight of more
than a few women at a time.
Blanck and Harris already had a suspicious history of factory fires.
The Triangle factory was twice scorched in 1902, while their Diamond
Waist Company factory burned twice, in 1907 and in 1910. It seems that
Blanck and Harris deliberately torched their workplaces before
business hours in order to collect on the large fire-insurance
policies they purchased, a not uncommon practice in the early 20th
century. While this was not the cause of the 1911 fire, it contributed
to the tragedy, as Blanck and Harris refused to install sprinkler
systems and take other safety measures in case they needed to burn
down their shops again.
Added to this delinquency were Blanck and Harris' notorious
anti-worker policies. Their employees were paid a mere $15 a week,
despite working 12 hours a day, every day. When the International
Ladies Garment Workers Union led a strike in 1909 demanding higher pay
and shorter and more predictable hours, Blanck and Harris' company was
one of the few manufacturers who resisted, hiring police as thugs to
imprison the striking women, and paying off politicians to look the
On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were 600 workers at the
factory when a fire broke out in a rag bin on the eighth floor. The
manager turned the fire hose on it, but the hose was rotted and its
valve was rusted shut. Panic ensued as the workers fled to every exit.
The elevator broke down after only four trips, and women began jumping
down the shaft to their deaths. Those who fled down the wrong set of
stairs were trapped inside and burned alive. Other women trapped on
the eighth floor began jumping out the windows, which created a
problem for the firefighters whose hoses were crushed by falling
bodies. Also, the firefighters' ladders stretched only as high as the
seventh floor, and their safety nets were not strong enough to catch
the women, who were jumping three at a time.
Blanck and Harris were on the building's top floor with some workers
when the fire broke out. They were able to escape by climbing onto the
roof and hopping to an adjoining building.
The fire was out within half an hour, but not before 49 workers had
been killed by the fire, and another 100 or so were piled up dead in
the elevator shaft or on the sidewalk. The workers' union organized a
march on April 5 to protest the conditions that led to the fire; it
was attended by 80,000 people.
Though Blanck and Harris were put on trial for manslaughter, they
managed to get off scot-free. Still, the massacre for which they were
responsible did finally compel the city to enact reform. In addition
to the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law passed that October, the New
York Democratic set took up the cause of the worker and became known
as a reform party.
1911 : Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City
1634 : The settlement of Maryland
1957 : Common Market founded
1975 : King Faisal assassinated
1994 : Last U.S. troops depart Somalia