I owe many thanks to David von Drehle, author of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003), who powerfully describes events leading up to the fire, during the fire, and in the fire’s grim aftermath. I’m indebted to his book for much of what I know about the event, including the stories in this post, and I recommend it for anyone who wants to learn more.
Friday marked the 100th anniversary of the devastating Triangle Factory Fire, in which 146 women and men died. The consequences to those workers and to their families, and to those who survived the fire, are unspeakable.
While the Triangle Waist Factory Fire raged for half an hour before firemen extinguished it, David Von Drehle writes that within ten to twelve minutes after the fire broke out, there were “no good choices left,” and two or three minutes after that all possible avenues of escape were gone — no one left in the building at that point survived.
Today, I want to spend a minute on a few people whose quick, brave actions during those few precious minutes helped save many of those who were trapped in the factory. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Many workers were valiant and compassionate in the face of danger and death, and we will never know many of their final acts of courage.
Courage in the Inferno
On the eighth floor, the set of doors leading to the Washington Place stairs opened into the building, and were both locked and held shut by a panicked crowds pressing against them. Machinist Louis Brown found the key, managed to push other workers out of the way of the doors, and got them open. As workers poured down the stairs, Brown stayed to ensure the floor was evacuated. He was one of the only workers left when a police officer who had happened to be in the area made it to the eighth floor. Together, the two men bodily hauled the last two women in the loft away from the windows and sent them down the stairs. Brown paused for a moment — he must have been nearly overcome with smoke, von Drehle writes that at this point the fire was only a few feet from the door — and nearly paid for the delay with his life. In the blinding smoke and fire, he crawled and groped his way to the door.
* * * * *
One (unnamed) worker fleeing on the fire escape realized how dangerous the contraption was. Despite the seeming danger of returning to the building, she broke a window on the sixth floor and led several survivors back into this unburning section of the factory. Her quick decision saved herself and several of her fellow workers. Among those who survived was Abe Gordon, who told author Leon Stein that he still had one foot on the fire escape when the rusty stairs collapsed, killing everyone else on them.
* * * * *
Samuel Bernstein, the factory manager, at first unwisely chose to fight the fire instead of making sure all the workers were warned — but he was crucial in getting workers and administratiors to the roof from the tenth floor, ignoring the terrible risk to himself. When the fire was obviously out of control on the eighth and ninth floors, and he saw that Brown was getting the girls down the Washington Place stairs, he ran up the stairs. Turned away by blazing flames on the ninth floor, he continued on to the tenth floor, and led those who were there through a “hellish,” fiery passage to the roof.
* * * * *
But from the roof there would have been no escape, had it not been for some careless painters and some outside help. When he heard fire alarms ringing in the streets, and saw smoke pouring out of the building next to the one where he was lecturing, New York University Law Professor Frank Sommers lead his students onto the roof. Their building was was adjacent to the factory, and substantially taller. From there, the professor and students managed to save about sixty people by lowering abandoned painters’ ladders onto the factory roof and assisting, dragging or carrying the panicked, smoldering men and women to safety. With flames licking onto the roof and some workers forced to run through a sheet of fire to get up the stairs, law students were putting out workers’ flaming hair and clothes with their bare hands.
* * * * *
Perhaps the most heroic actions of the day that I’ve read about, though, were those of the two freight elevator operators, Joseph Zito and Gasper Mortillalo. Despite the smoke, heat, and flames, the men made trip after trip to the eighth, ninth and tenth floors. Their final trips, to the ninth floor, happened after the eighth floor had become a raging furnace. The elevators were stopped only by the weight of bodies falling on top of them and the heat becoming so intense it warped the elevator shafts. Von Drehle estimates that they saved 150 people, as many as half of all those who survived. If just one of them had made one less trip up the burning building, two dozen more women would have burned to death. If Zito and Mortillalo had abandoned their posts entirely, the body count for the fire might have been twice as high.
* * * * *
In the face of such a disaster, looking for “bright spots” would be a grotesque exercise. I don’t want to pretend that the Triangle Fire had was something bad that also “brought out the best in people,” as if teenage girls burning to death is a painful way for others to show their mettle. The Triangle Fire was thoroughly cruel, useless, and terrible.
It would be far, far better if the courage of these men and women had never been required. But it was required. Today, I remember and honor the bravery of those workers and witnesses — known and unknown — who risked their lives to help others escape the Triangle Factory Fire.
This photo was taken by Ben Watts and sourced from his flickr. It is reused with thanks under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic Attribution License.