“It Was Jump or Be Burned” — 100 Years After the Triangle Factory Fire
“The walls are as good as ever; so are the floors; nothing is the worse for the fire except the furniture and 141 of the 600 men and girls that were employed in its upper three stories.”
~ The New York Times, March 26, 1911
In fact, we now know the death toll was 146. All but 23 of them were young women and girls, most of them recent immigrants to the United States. Many were the breadwinners for their families; many were working at the factory with sisters, friends, sisters-in-law. They died burning, falling down the elevator shafts, crushed as the rusty fire escape collapsed, or jumping to the Lower Manhattan sidewalk.
Though firemen quickly arrived, their ladders didn’t reach the floors where the workers were trapped. As the next day’s New York Times wrote, “it was jump or be burned,” and that although those who jumped “crushed themselves on the sidewalk,” “[o]f those who stayed behind, it is better to say nothing.” The men and women trapped in the flames were burned so badly that identification was next to impossible — the final six victims were only identified last month, 100 years after their deaths.
Friday, March 25, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the infamous Triangle Waist Factory Fire. Though it was far from the only workplace disaster of the early 20th century, the agony and helplessness of its victims deeply shocked many Americans, and imbued the burgeoning labor rights movement with energy and moral outrage.
It happened so fast
Cotton burns fast and hot, and though the building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist was famously fireproof, its contents were all too flammable. When a fire broke out in a wastebasket on the eighth floor, within seconds it had spread to the scraps, cuttings, finished and unfinished shirtwaists the factory produced. Survivors interviewed in the 1950s by author Leon Stein describe flames that “shot up like an explosion,” and “machines [that] were bubbling with flame.”
Ida Kornweiser, a sleeve setter who escaped by wrapping herself in a sheet of lawn and running through a sheet of fire to get to the roof, said, “Before we had a chance to look around, everything was burning.” In less than half an hour, the conflagration had engulfed all three floors of the factory. (Lower floors, which housed other businesses, were empty this Saturday.)
The factory was not only a tinderbox, it was a trap. There were a few avenues of escape, at least at first. Some of those in the factory, including the two owners, Mr. Harris and Mr. Blanck, fled to the roof and were rescued; others reached safety on the freight elevators. Workers attempting to flee down one staircase were soon cut off by flames, though, and only a handful of men and women managed to reach safety on the fire escape before it collapsed, killing everyone else on it.
Though the operators of the freight elevators made several trips into the inferno, the elevators were soon stopped by the weight of bodies falling onto them — later, about 30 bodies and at least two survivors were removed from the elevator shafts, pushed in by the frantic crush of workers.
Most tragically — most criminally — workers say the front doors on the ninth floor were locked, supposedly to prevent workers from stealing scraps of cloth or lace.
Rose Hauser, a worker on the ninth floor, told author Leon Stein, “I ran with some of the other girls to the front door. I put my hand on the knob and tried to open it and I stood there screaming that the door was locked. I tried to force it open with all my strength but it would not move.”
Later, despite the testimony of numerous survivors that the doors were locked, trapping workers in with the fire, an all-male jury took less than two hours to acquit both factory owners of manslaughter charges.
Rose Hauser was one of those who testified. She told Mr. Stein, “I was one of the first witnesses called. Steuer [the owners' lawyer] certainly made me sweat. He put words in my mouth. He confused me and tried to prove I was lying. I said one word and he twisted it to mean its opposite. He prodded me and while I answered him I could see in front of me, the bodies of the girls falling through the air but he was trying to make me look like a fool. At one point I screamed out at him, ‘I am not lying, I am telling the truth. For god sakes I could see the whole thing in front of me.’”
Another worker, Josephine Nicolosi, told Leon Stein not only that the doors were locked, but that one of the owners, Mr. Blanck, offered her $1,000 to change her testimony.
In his book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, David Von Drehle reports that just two years after the fire, and after his subsequent acquittal for purposefully locking his workers into the factory, Mr. Blanck was convicted for locking workers into yet another garment factory. He was fined twenty dollars, the minimum punishment.
One Hundred Forty Six Lives
One hundred and forty six women, girls, men and boys died pointlessly, in fear and pain. Far more lives were shattered. Mothers, fathers, spouses, lovers, siblings, children, neighbors and friends bore not only the death of their loved ones, but endured the agony of trying to identify their children, parents, siblings, lovers and friends from impossibly charred remains, or seeing the faces they loved dashed on the pavement.
They also lived to see the men who had — allegedly — locked their loved ones in a death trap walk away without even a slap on a wrist. According to Bill Singer at Forbes, they saw these men collect $400 of insurance money for each worker, while family members struggled to scrape together enough money to buy grave markers. (The owners would eventually be forced through a civil suit to pay a paltry $75 for each victim.) Survivors lived with the memory of their friends burning alive, while the factory owners’ lawyer called them liars.
The fire is an important moment in U.S. history; it’s widely considered a turning point in the movement for workers’ rights, and it’s a powerful example of the bitter exploitation of poor workers, women and immigrants. Over the next two days, I’ll be writing more about the Triangle Waist Factory fire, and its historical and continuing importance.
For now, though, I want to memorialize the 146 lives that were needlessly ended. One hundred and forty six people loved, and laughed, and cried, and sang, and worked, and imagined better lives for themselves. Leon Stein’s interviews with the survivors throw individual after individual into sharp relief — Esther, who had just gotten engaged and was bubbling over with happiness, Mary, the pretty, helpful girl everyone liked, Joseph, who had just pulled together the money he needed to buy his own drug store.
One hundred and forty six individuals should have had a chance to live. While we acknowledge the historical importance of their deaths, for now I want to grieve for them and honor them. They shouldn’t have been forced into being “a turning point” — they should have lived.
One hundred years later, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the Triangle Waist Fire, and the people who loved them. Rest in peace.
Related Stories:Heroes In the Flames — 100 Years After The Triangle FireUPDATED: The Triangle Fire: Care2 Members Have Strong Feelings
This photograph of the coffins of Triangle fire victims is a press photo from the George Grantham Bain collection, which is now owned by the Library of Congress. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons, and is reused under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License.