The worst industrial accident in American history, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in lower Manhattan, claimed the lives of an estimated 146 New York City workers. The disaster should have been prevented. In 1910, New York City's fire chief warned that the 12-, 14-, and 15-story buildings that housed the city's sweatshops lacked fire protection and offered no escape to workers in the event of fire. His warning went unheeded. At the time, more than half a million New Yorkers worked eight or more floors above ground level, beyond the 85-foot reach of the ladders of firefighters.
The rapidly growing ready-to-wear garment industry was one of the largest employers of women, with many working in manufacturing blouses, then known as shirtwaists. Sweatshop workers, including those from the Triangle factory, had attempted to better their working conditions by striking during the winter of 1909-1910. The strike began when the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) struck against Triangle in September. The strike, caused by the company's continuous discharge of workers who attempted to unionize, brought furious resistance by company guards, who beat picketers. Typical of labor protests in this era, the strike was also marked by mass arrests and police brutality against picketers. Garment workers were arrested for prostitution on the grounds that since they were walking the street, they must be streetwalkers.
The brutality against the Triangle workers boomeranged when 20,000 garment industry workers walked off their jobs in sympathy. Along with better wages, the strikers sought union recognition as well as adequate fire escapes and open doors from the factories to the street. The 13-week strike, also held in Philadelphia at the same time, was the first large-scale women's labor action. The strikers received considerable help from outsiders, including wealthy women who wore their furs when they joined the picket lines. The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) and the Socialist Party provided significant support, with the WTUL organizing relief stations, arranging bail, and providing publicity help. Nevertheless, the strike failed to achieve its major demand of union recognition. Arbitration in February 1910 resulted in wage increases. The women wanted to continue the strike until they had won all of their demands, but male union leaders did not support them, and their allies faded away. The workers gradually returned to the factories.
A million-dollar business, Triangle employed hundreds of Italian and Jewish immigrants, most of whom were females in their teens and early twenties.
The Triangle owners were no better and no worse than any other sweatshop owners. Pauline Newman, a garment worker who survived the Triangle fire and later became an ILGWU organizer, reported that all garment manufacturers followed the same procedures and that the women went back to the shops because the pay was comparatively good. The Triangle owners separated from their colleagues in being unusually vigorous in their efforts to prevent unionization. To keep out union organizers and prevent theft, the doors of the Triangle factory were kept locked during working hours, and departing employees were forced to pass a daily inspection at the appointed exit.
On Saturday, March 25, fire broke out on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Triangle factory just as 500 workers were preparing to leave for the day. The cause of the blaze remains unknown, but bits of fabric littered the workplaces and a carelessly tossed match or cigarette may have begun the fire. There were no fire extinguishers and only one fire escape. The number of exits was inadequate, some doors opened inward, the stairwell had no exit to the roof, and most exit doors were locked. In panic and confusion, workers pressed against one another, pushing toward the exits. Many were crushed to death. When firefighters entered the factory, they found the women's charred bodies piled up behind locked doors. Other fleeing workers jammed themselves into two freight elevators, but women who were still trapped on the top floors jumped into the elevator shafts to escape. The bodies of the jumpers jammed the mechanism and halted the descent of the two elevators. Forced to choose between burning to death, dying from smoke inhalation, or jumping, many men and women chose to jump. Onlookers thought that bundles of old clothes were being thrown from the windows until they saw blood pouring down the street and realized what was happening. Some of the jumpers held hands, perhaps in an effort to ease their terror, and jumped to their deaths in groups. Some workers made it to the roof, where they were helped to cross to another building by students from neighboring New York University. Within 30 minutes, between 143 and 147 workers had died. Smoke from the blaze could be seen throughout Manhattan.
The bodies were laid out in the street for identification, but most of the dead were too badly burned or too mangled to be identified. More than 120,000 people attended a funeral in which coffins were numbered for identification purposes. An investigation placed the blame for the disaster on the Triangle owners, the insurance company, and New York City's building and fire departments. No one was ever convicted on criminal charges. Unable to determine whether the owners knew that the main exit door was locked during working hours, a jury acquitted Max Blanck and Isaac Harris of charges of manslaughter. However, Triangle was found to have committed numerous safety violations. Wrongful death suits settled out of court by family members resulted in Blanck and Harris paying $75 for each of the 23 plaintiffs.
In the weeks after the fire, horrified New Yorkers demanded better safety conditions. The ILGWU and the WTUL were joined by civic organizations in protest meetings and demands for factory safety legislation. Many of the meetings were attended by upper- and middle-class reformers, to the anger of some working women who blamed them for being too late. In one of the best-known speeches given during one of these meetings, Rose Schneiderman attacked the well- to-do for favoring property over lives and for refusing to halt the police in their abuse of picketing workers.
The New York legislature established a Factory Investigating Commission in June 1911 headed by Robert F. Wagner with Al Smith serving as vice chairman. Both men were notable Progressives who would continue to press for legislation protecting workers for the remainder of their political careers. The commission recommended legislation providing for safety and for the health of women and children employees. New factory inspection laws were put into place, and workers' compensation legislation placed a larger share of the cost of accidents in the hands of employers, thereby giving employers a financial incentive to protect their workers. Under pressure by Progressives, other Northern and Western states also defined safety regulations in factories more specifically and provided more severe punishment for violations. The Triangle fire attracted such publicity because it occurred in the largest American city and the media center of the United States, but the disaster could have easily occurred in many other cities.
New York, New York