In the heart of New York City near Washington Square
In nineteen eleven, March winds were cold and bare.
A fire broke out in a building ten stories high,
And a hundred forty-six young girls in those flames did die.
– Ballad of the Triangle Fire by Ruth Rubin
On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of Asch building, a massive structure at the corner of Washington Place and Green Street.
The top three floors of the 10-story building were occupied by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a manufacturer of women’s clothing. That afternoon the factory was packed with nearly 500 workers, most of them young immigrant women.
The factory was a typical sweatshop where workers, including children as young as 12, labored 14 hours a day, 72 hours a week. The place was dirty, crowded, loud and dangerous. Although it was filled with paper and fabric and lit by open gas flames, there was only one exit, no fire extinguishers and no sprinklers. A single stairway led to the roof.
That day, when the cry of “Fire!” was heard, workers rushed to the exit, only to find the supervisors had locked the door from the outside, a common practice intended to prevent them from taking breaks or stealing materials.
The fire department was on the scene within minutes, but their ladders were too short to reach beyond the 7th floor and the water from their hoses went no higher. The windows were the only way out. Terrified girls jammed onto the only fire escape, which buckled, twisted and collapsed under their weight.
The firemen held life-nets, trying to catch the desperate workers who were jumping from the windows, but the nets couldn’t withstand the force; the girls’ bodies tore straight through the fabric and crashed into the pavement. Eyewitnesses told of girls sailing through the air hand in hand and of a couple who embraced and kissed before they lept together.
By the time the fire was extinguished 146 people were dead, making it the worst industrial disaster in New York City history. It took one week to identify the dead; seven remained unknown, as did the cause of the fire.
The tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory galvanized working women, leading to increased trade union membership and a series of strikes across the nation calling for higher wages, safer conditions and women’s suffrage. It also focused public attention on the inhumane working conditions in the city’s factory’s and led to massive reforms, including the creation of the new safety and labor laws, strict building codes and fire inspections.
Today, the 96th anniversary was marked by a solemn ceremony outside the Asch building, which withstood the blaze and is now owned by New York University.
Politicians, fire officials, labor leaders and clergy honored the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and railed against the dangerous working conditions that still exist around the world. A prayer was said and the Ballad of the Triangle Fire was sung.
Finally, schoolchildren were given white carnations, each tagged with the name of a victim. A silver fire bell tolled 146 times as the children read the names, then placed the blossoms in a pile, forming a tangled mound of crushed flowers and stems on the chilly sidewalk.
Cornell University: The Triangle Fire
Historybuff: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
The Gale Group: Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: 1911
Library of Congress: An Elegy for Fire Victims
New York Times: Workers Assail Night Lock-Ins by Wal-Mart
Hamlet: the Untold Tragedy of the Imperial Food Products Fire
International Labour Organization: The Kader Toy Factory Fire