Today in 1911, a fire tore through a sweatshop in the upper stories of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village. In just twenty minutes, the inferno gutted the eighth, ninth and tenth floors — the three levels that comprised the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
The owners and most foremen escaped easily, but more than two hundred garment workers — mostly young immigrant women — remained trapped in the factory, because management kept the stairway doors locked to deter unauthorized breaks, discourage theft, and prevent visits from union organizers.
As fire raced through factory, two dozen workers packed into the two freight elevators. As the packed cars sluggishly descended — lifts were painfully slow back then — the two hundred employees left behind waited anxiously and cast about for other options amid the growing flames and billowing smoke.
Twenty workers crowded onto the sole fire escape. Unable to bear their weight — and weakened by heat of the blaze — the flimsy structure crumpled, twisted and tore away from the building, pitching the women to their deaths on the pavement, more than a hundred feet below.
Several minutes later, the freight elevator doors opened again. Another two dozen workers squeezed inside while the brave lift operators — Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo, two Italian immigrants — resumed their slow descent.
By now, firefighters had arrived on the street below, but neither their ladders nor the water from their hoses could reach higher than the sixth floor. As the smoke and heat became unbearable, several girls leapt from the windows, trying to catch on to the ladders below. Most missed entirely. All fell to their deaths.
Out in the street, teams of firefighters held blankets taut to form life nets. However, too many women jumped at the same time. They tore right through the fabric, crashing fatally into the pavement.
Finally, the freight elevators returned for a third load. This time, more than two dozen desperate girls jammed in. The workers left behind tore away the screens and watched their last hope sink slowly down the shafts. Flames and smoke now filled all three floors.
About halfway down the elevator shaft, both cars rocked as great weights from above began smashing down on the lift roofs, denting in the ceilings. When blood began to seep down the elevator interior walls, the occupants knew it was their coworkers jumping down into the shaft to escape the fire and shattering their bodies on the lift roofs. Once the cars finally reached bottom, the terrified riders poured out. But now the elevators were stuck on the ground floor — weighed down by piles of corpses atop them, their frames warped by repeated impacts, and unable to climb beams and cables deformed and weakened by the fire above.
Now entirely without hope — seared by extreme heat, choking on smoke — the remaining girls on the factory floors began jumping from the windows, smashing one by one into the sidewalk below.
Witness Louis Waldman remembered:
“Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street….
“The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.”
The spectators included the foreman who carried the key to the stairwell doors in his pocket.
In the end, 146 sweatshop workers — 23 boys and men, and 123 women and girls — lost their lives.
Despite multiple violations of city codes, the factory owners — Max Blanck and Isaac Harris — escaped criminal accountability entirely. In 1913, a civil court found them liable for wrongful death and required them to pay $75 in damages for each victim; that would be equivalent to about $1800 today. However, a generous payout from their insurance company more than covered the owners’ losses. In fact, Blanck — already back in business — paid a $20 fine to the city later that year for keeping the exits at his new factory locked during working hours.
Economic conservatives sometimes argue that there should be no minimum wage, no workplace regulations, and no labor unions. Just a century ago, the laissez-faire dystopia of their dreams really existed.
Triangle Shirtwaist employees worked from 7:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. — with a 30-minute lunch break—five days a week, plus seven more hours on Saturdays. Sometimes, they had to work Sundays, too. They earned about $9 per week — the equivalent of $220 today, or $4 per hour. These were typical working conditions in American factories during the Industrial Age.
Garment workers in New York City had tried to organize labor unions the year before the fire. In 1910, public opinion generally condemned unions as socialist and un-American, and laws defined labor unions as illegal conspiracies; this enabled factory owners to enlist courts and the police to break the strike. Employers also resorted to extralegal intimidation, like paying prostitutes to pummel picketing workers.
In the end, the garment industry refused to concede to any of the union’s demands. The Triangle Shirtwaist owners specifically rejected requests to unlock the stairwell doors and reinforce the fire escape.
Sadly, it took the Triangle Shirtwaist fire to shock the country’s conscience and force a gradual reexamination of American prejudices against labor unions, sweatshop workers, immigrants, and women.
Finally, after decades of struggle, labor unions ultimately secured sounder laws, stronger regulations, safer cities and workplaces, and a better quality of life for all Americans. Thanks to labor union activism, today we take for granted…
- The 40-hour work week
- The minimum wage
- Employer-provided health insurance
- Worker’s compensation for job-related injuries and illnesses
- Unemployment benefits
- Employer-provided pensions for retirees
The tragic martyrdom of 146 immigrant sweatshop workers made that possible.
As much as any American soldier on any battlefield, the Triangle Shirtwaist workers died for us.