The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

By Paul Rosa

At 4:45 pm the bell rang signaling that the workday was done. The girls in the light brown and terra cotta Asch building, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in lower Manhattan, had put in some overtime. The clothiers on the lower floors had closed shop at noon this Saturday but the girls, mostly Italian, Yiddish and German, on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors could use the extra money over the $6 a week they normally made. They assembled women's tailored shirts which were copied from the men's styles. The girls worked for Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. The name of the business was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The date was March 25, 1911.

As the girls were gathering their belongings and putting on their coats someone yelled "Fire!"

Down below on the street, people started to notice the smoke billowing from the 8th floor. One of the bystanders observed a bolt of cloth come flying out the window and hit the pavement. Instinctively, he remarked that Harris was trying to save his best material. As the people on the street moved closer, out flew another bolt. It was then that the realization hit them that it wasn't bolts of cloth at all but bodies plummeting to the pavement below.

By the time Engine Company 72 arrived from 12th Street (only 6 blocks away) they had trouble maneuvering their hose wagon into position since they didn't want to grind the already six limp forms lying in the street. The bodies were still falling. The distraught fire fighters pulled out a life net and attempted to catch one girl but three more hurled themselves immediately after the first and all four bounced out hitting the concrete. A policeman and fireman held a horse blanket and tried to catch the next hurling body. The blanket split in two and the body hit the pavement -- dead.

Back inside, on the 8th floor, feeding on cotton fabric and then climbing to the hanging overhead garments, the fire took little time to race out of control. The foreman and male tailors tried desperately to douse the licking flames with the 27 water buckets that were available. The efforts proved to be futile and the 275 girls panicked in desperation and headed for the two passenger elevators and the stairway at the west end of the loft. The crush of women at the door leading to the stairway slammed it closed. The doors in this building opened in rather than out.

Joe Zitto and Joe Gaspar, the elevator operators, brought elevators to the 8th floor and the girls fought frantically to get on. Each car only held 10. These two cars, making approximately 15 to 20 trips each, brought about 12 to 15 havoc-stricken passengers down to street level -- their clothing still smoldering. Finally, the girls upstairs were able to open the stairway door and raced down the stairs to street level -- most of them with their garments almost completely burned from their bodies.

Hundreds were still trapped upstairs. Three male cutters formed a human chain from the Shirtwaist's 8th floor window to the adjacent window next door. Some girls were able to cross over on the backs of the three. But then the men lost their balance and all three souls fell 80 feet to join the already growing number on the pavement.

Meanwhile, Engine Company 33 had arrived from Great Jones Street. To add to the horror, the stream of water from their hoses would only reach as far as the 7th floor! The aerial ladders only reached between the 6th and 7th floors. Girls were now jumping, trying to grab the top of the ladder. All missed -- diving to their deaths. Some of the girls were jumping now five at a time with fire streaking from their hair as they hurled themselves into eternity. They hit the glass sidewalk vault lights and crashed through to the basement, water pouring on top of them. Now there were literally thousands of spectators behind the police lines unable to believe what they were witnessing.

At another window, a man and a woman kissed and hurled themselves into the air. One girl jumped holding a fire bucket. Another one tossed her purse, her hat and then herself.

Interns, arriving in horse drawn ambulances from St. Vincent's, Bellevue and New York hospitals were only able to tag the broken bodies and cover them with tarpaulins. The 10th floor, which was where the showroom and the pressing of the shirtwaists took place, first received the message of a fire over the teleautograph which relayed messages between floors. At first, they thought it to be a prank -- but they soon smelled the smoke. Realizing that they could not go down, they climbed onto the roof. Some members and students from New York University Law School lowered a ladder to the horror-stricken girls. (The Triangle Building was about 12 feet lower than its adjacent structure.) Almost 150 reached safety this way.

A considerable portion of those who jumped came from the 9th floor. The reaching tongues of the flames from the floor beneath grabbed the windowsills and entered the 9th floor to start consuming the materials that were stacked high. The women raced to the east end stairway but by now it was an inferno. They stampeded back to the west side passenger elevators and stairway. The door was locked. Some tried the building's only fire escape but the courtyard was as hot as a blast furnace. They started screaming for Zitto to come up. After an eternity, he did, but could only take a handful. He would later testify that, as he was going back down the elevator shaft, he heard bodies hitting the top of the car -- blood was dripping on him and coins bouncing through the shaft. Later, police would pull over 25 charred bodies from atop the elevator.

Firemen would later say that they found 19 bodies melted against the locked door. 25 were found huddled in death in the cloakroom trying to escape the flames, some with their hands covering their faces in death.

The firemen now rushed up the stairs with their hoses to extinguish the flames. The steel and concrete structure was undamaged -- for the Triangle Building was fireproof; but not death proof.

As night approached, the grisly task began of removing the bodies from the upper floors of the building. Searchlights on both Greene Street and Washington Place were directed to the upper floors creating an eerie effect to the already grim sight. Using the nets, the firemen lowered the bodies, 2 and 3 at a time, out the window by means of block and tackle to the waiting police below. The nets were soon exhausted and blankets from the driver's seats and eventually from the horses were used. The bodies were spread in a row on the east side of Greene Street on a dark red canvas.

All during the night ambulances transported the dead bodies to Bellevue Morgue on 26th Street and to the adjoining tin-roofed pier on the East River. The patrol wagons that were dispatched from distant precincts to transport the bodies to the pier were delayed because of the slow process of removing the bodies. They ending up lining up on a side street like taxicabs waiting to take people to their destination.

From 6 pm on, the wagons, as if in a procession, moved from Washington Square up Broadway to 14th Street then up Fourth Avenue to 23rd, then east to Fifth Avenue and down to the foot of 26th Street. Ironically, the morbid smell of death was no stranger to this pier. In 1904, the dead were lined up here from the disastrous fire on the excursion boat General Slocum.

Police had sent for 75 to 100 coffins from the morgue but only 65 were available. Commissioner Drummond sent the Charities Department steamer, The Bronx, to Blackwell's Island to bring down the supply of 200 coffins in the carpenter shop of Metropolitan Hospital. The steamship returned at 10:30 pm with the boxes. Meanwhile, the firemen searched the water and gas filled basement under the street for survivors. One fireman by chance looked up and found the bodies of two women draped across the lattice of steam pipes above him. He had passed this spot several times in his search and never even noticed them before.

Around 6 pm that night hundreds of screaming, hysterical relatives and friends of the factory workers rushed to the Mercer Street Police Station looking for survivors and information on those that hadn't returned home from work. The doors had to be shut because of the crush of people. When the doorman informed them of the temporary morgue on the East River, many fainted.

The next few days would bring hundreds of relatives and friends to the temporary morgue trying to identify their loved ones. It was estimated that the initial count was 100 grief-stricken souls arriving every minute. Out of necessity, a temporary police station was opened at the pier and 40 policemen were assigned the painful duty of assisting the horrified multitudes. The task of identifying the dead, some of which were unrecognizable, went on through the night. One woman, on finding her daughter after only looking at the third coffin, stood motionless for several minutes. She was being comforted and held by each arm by a nurse and a police officer but as she turned she fell to her knees and fainted. She was carried outside and revived and comforted by the policeman. As she began to walk away, the grief-stricken officer gave her a 2 dollar bill.

Many that did come were curiosity seekers, reading about the tragedy in the morning papers. Some women were able to sneak through the security soon wished their curiosity had not gotten the best of them. On seeing the first charred body, they fainted.

To this day, 84 years later, no one is absolutely sure on how the fire started. It is said that one of the men, who was smoking, threw either a match or cigarette onto the clutter-filled floor. On December 28th, 1911 Harris and Blanck were acquitted of wrong doing -- specifically, if the doors on the west side were locked or not (a measure probably taken to prevent theft). Twenty-three families sued the two owners and eventually they each were paid a sum of $75. The New York legislature, appalled by the event, created a commission headed by Senator Robert F. Wagoner, Alfred E. Smith, and Samuel Gompers to investigate conditions in the city's sweatshops. This resulted in the present labor laws protecting factory workers in health, disability and fire prevention. The division of Fire Prevention was also created as part of the Fire Department. Their function is to rid factories of fire hazards. Among other restrictions, all doors must now open outwards, no doors are to be locked during working hours, sprinkler systems must be installed if a company employs more than 25 people above the ground floor, and fire drills are mandatory for buildings lacking sprinkler systems.

The building where 146 died still stands now and is part of the New York University. Today, students look out the windows where so many leaped to their deaths.

Few events in the course of the lifetime of an individual leave a lasting impression on that person but this is one of them. We tend to date new events according to a tragic event from our past. In our lifetime it would be the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK or the Challenger disaster. Such was the case with the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire on March 25, 1911. One businessman who was born a few blocks away from the fire related that, as a child, he remembered asking his father when he was born and being told: "Just two years before the Triangle Waist Company fire."