Nearly 150 Workers Die in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was one of the worst industrial fires in American history. Within an hour, more than one hundred workers, mostly young women and girls, jumped to their deaths after being trapped by blocked exit doors and faulty fire escapes. Others died later from smoke inhalation. The ensuing scandal over the hazardous working conditions led to many state and federal labor laws on worker safety.

Summary of Event

On March 25, 1911, at the end of a workday, a horrible fire broke out on the eighth floor of the ten-story building on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The lower floors contained clothing shops that had closed at noon on this warm, spring Saturday. Floors eight, nine, and ten housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a factory that employed about one thousand workers and made women’s tailored shirts. The employees were working overtime on this particular day to supplement their typical weekly salary of six dollars. The fire, which spread quickly, had been fueled by bolts of cotton, linen, and silk fabric, and by laces and paper patterns, and quickly climbed to the hanging garments. [kw]Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Nearly 150 Workers Die in (Mar. 25, 1911) [kw]Fire, Nearly 150 Workers Die in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (Mar. 25, 1911) Factory Investigating Commission, New York Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire New York City;Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire Wagner, Robert F. Factory Investigating Commission, New York Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire New York City;Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire Wagner, Robert F. [g]United States;Mar. 25, 1911: Nearly 150 Workers Die in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire[00140] [c]Families and children;Mar. 25, 1911: Nearly 150 Workers Die in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire[00140] [c]Labor;Mar. 25, 1911: Nearly 150 Workers Die in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire[00140] [c]Law and the courts;Mar. 25, 1911: Nearly 150 Workers Die in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire[00140] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 25, 1911: Nearly 150 Workers Die in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire[00140] [c]Women’s issues;Mar. 25, 1911: Nearly 150 Workers Die in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire[00140]

Mourners protest poor working conditions in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

(NARA)

The fire, which started on the eighth floor, forced many of the workers, mostly girls and young women between the ages of thirteen and twenty-three (and who were mostly of Jewish, Italian, and German descent), to jump from the windows. A fire truck soon arrived but had trouble getting its hose wagon into position because of the dead bodies on the pavement. Finally, distraught firefighters pulled out a life net and attempted to catch people as they jumped. The jumpers, however, bounced from the net and were killed after hitting the concrete. Next, hopeful rescuers tried to catch jumpers with a horse blanket, but the blanket split and became useless as well.

Some male factory employees reportedly tried to quench the fire with buckets of water, but this effort proved futile. The remaining young employees panicked and headed for the elevators and the stairway. As the workers pounded on the stairway doors, the doors slammed shut because they opened in rather than out. Others ran to the building’s two elevators, which could carry approximately ten passengers each, and were able to escape to the street. Employees still upstairs finally got the stairway door open and ran down the stairs and escaped, but most suffered burns. Three male employees tried to form a human chain from an eighth-floor window to the adjacent window next door, but they lost their balance and fell eighty feet to their deaths. More firefighters arrived but soon learned their hoses could reach to the seventh floor only. Workers jumped and tried to reach the top of a firefighting ladder, but plummeted to the street instead. Interns arrived in horse-drawn ambulances from three area hospitals but by this time only covered and tagged the dead bodies.

Many of the employees who jumped had worked on the ninth floor. As flames from the eighth floor burned the windowsills of the ninth floor, women raced to the stairway, but the door was locked. An elevator attendant finally arrived at the ninth floor but could take a few women only down to the street level. As the attendant tried to go back up, he heard bodies hitting the top of the elevator and saw blood and coins falling through the shaft. Police later reported pulling more than twenty-five charred bodies from the elevator shaft, and firefighters indicated they found nineteen bodies melted against the locked door.

Some workers on the tenth floor got news of the fire and initially believed it was a prank, but they soon smelled the smoke and climbed onto the roof. Students from nearby New York University Law School lowered a ladder onto the burning building’s roof and led almost 150 workers to safety. By this time, firefighters with water hoses had reached the upper floors and began to extinguish the flames and look for survivors. The Triangle Building had one inadequate fire escape: one ladder that led to a narrow courtyard (which during this fire was filled with smoke). Many of the workers had struggled to breathe during the fire, and the few that survived the fire itself later died from smoke inhalation.

As nightfall approached, firefighters and police officers began removing bodies from the upper floors of the building. They used nets and horse blankets to lower two to three bodies at a time out the windows, into rows on a dark red canvas. It took all night for ambulances to take the bodies to the morgue. A tin-roofed pier on the East River had to be used as a temporary morgue because of the large number of bodies. The next few days would bring hundreds of relatives and friends to try and identify their loved ones.

Strangely, the Triangle Building was made of steel and concrete and was considered fireproof. The exterior was undamaged. Except for the blackened windows of the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors, it was difficult to notice that there had been a fire. The source of the fire remains unidentified, but there have been rumors that a man who had been smoking threw either a lit match or a cigarette on the fabric- and paper-covered floor.

Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, were acquitted of wrongdoing in the fire. However, twenty-three families sued them and were awarded seventy-five dollars each.

Impact

Appalled by the fire and loss of life, supporters of women’s rights and labor unions cried out for lawmakers to implement worker health and safety laws and to regulate industry. The public reacted to the disaster with shock and outrage. There were protest meetings throughout the city, and a citywide mourning procession drew an estimated 120,000 marchers and 400,000 spectators. The public was outraged as well when Harris and Blanck were acquitted of manslaughter charges.

Following public demands, the New York State legislature created the Factory Investigating Commission, chaired by state senator Robert F. Wagner, which looked into the hazardous conditions of the city’s sewing factories, or sweatshops. The commission’s conclusions led to the implementation of labor laws designed to protect workers, to the creation of a fire prevention division for the fire department, and to the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act of National Labor Relations Act of 1935 1935, which guaranteed labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively; labor unions quickly emerged.

Other building codes were instituted. These new codes included the following: all interior doors must open out and no doors may be locked during working hours; sprinkler systems must be installed if a business employs more than twenty-five people above the ground floor, and fire drills are mandated if a building does not have a sprinkler system. Fire extinguishers and education about fire prevention and escape routes also became mandatory. The fire also led to increased support for labor unions such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and it led to the development of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and 1911 Triangle fire U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) standards. Factory Investigating Commission, New York Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire New York City;Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire Wagner, Robert F.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Angelis, Gina. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of 1911. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000. Brings readers into the horrible conditions of garment factories in early twentieth century New York City. Accurately portrays the daily lives of factory workers, especially immigrants, in New York. Examines the labor movement and how it gained momentum. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, James R. “The Struggle for Control in the Progressive Era.” In The World of the Worker: Labor in Twentieth-Century America. Reprint. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1998. Places the Triangle fire in context as a significant incident in the American labor movement as well as in the nation’s social and cultural history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Malone, Scott. “Tale Rises from Triangle’s Ashes.” Women’s Wear Daily, October 14, 2003. A review of David Von Drehle’s 2003 book, Triangle. A garment industry publication provides a good overview of the tragedy’s place in public memory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stein, Leon. The Triangle Fire. 1962. Reprint. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 2001. A comprehensive, well-written, and moving account that makes excellent use of trial records, newspaper stories, and interviews with survivors, among other sources. Stein is an editor of a union publication.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Von Drehle, David. “Trial by Fire: Vital Records Were Missing and Would Have Stayed Missing Were It Not for a Dead Lawyer’s Vanity.” Smithsonian, August, 2006. Von Drehle, a senior writer at The Washington Post, tells the story of his determined effort to find missing documents, lost trial transcripts, and fire marshal and coroner reports about the tragedy. The found records had helped reform the country’s labor laws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003. A graphic and detailed account of the tragedy that led to changes in workplace laws. Also includes the only complete list of victims of the fire.

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