Siliconcowboy's Blog

Technology, journalism, social media and social responsibility

Horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was 100 Years Ago Today

This morning, I jotted out a quick note on my Facebook page that today was the 100th anniversary of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York’s Garment District.

I debated leaving it at that, but something would not let me leave it alone.

We of the early 21st century live with the horrific images of innocent Americans throwing themselves to their deaths as intense, jet-fueled fires raced toward them in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.  I know that for myself, the images captured during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks bring up very deep and painful emotions.

But that was not the first time our nation had experienced such horror. Indeed, it wasn’t even the first time New York had seen it.

At about 4pm in the afternoon of March 25, 1911, hundreds of women were working on the  upper floors of the Asch Building in the bustling Garment District of New York City when someone dropped a match or a cigarette, sparking a fire that quickly spread throughout the upper floors of the building.

Fire crews and their water cannons were drawn to the scene by 6-horse carriages. The tallest ladders could only reach the sixth floor of the building. A fire escape collapsed under the weight of workers trying to escape down its stairs. Hundreds of onlookers watched in horror, fighting in futility against police lines as the inevitable unfolded.

Some 146 people died in the subsequent fire, mostly young immigrant women. A large number of the dead had thrown themselves from the upper floors of the building, some falling in flames. It is said that the first person to jump was a man and the second and third were a man and a young girl who kissed briefly, held hands and jumped.

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist company, actually survived the fire by escaping to the roof. They were later arrested and tried for manslaughter when it was discovered that the doors to the factory had been locked.  But they were acquitted when a savvy lawyer questioned a surviving employee over and over, eliciting the same responses word for word, which he said indicated that the prosecution had coached its witnesses.

Eventually, the two lost a civil suit which forced them to pay the victims’ families the equivalent of about $75 per employee. The company’s insurance policy paid the owners $400 per employee. Several years later, Blanck was arrested again for locking the door of a factory building; he was fined $20.

Despite the seemingly unjust outcome of the fire, it did in fact prompt a number of important reforms. Indeed, the event was a defining moment for those who witnessed it, and to the New Yorkers who learned of it from photographs and news stories. It was as if the City took personal responsibility for the fire and the great and tragic loss of innocent young lives.

Unions were able to organize in great numbers. Committees were organized to investigate working conditions, and new ordinances were emplaced to ensure the safety of workers. An organization of engineers dedicated to ensuring the safety of dwellings and structures was founded. In the end, the tragedy became the nexus of so many reforms that commentators now look at the lost lives as heroic sacrifices.

A documentary video of the event can be found here; a CBS News story on the anniversary can be found here.

Ninety years later, on September 11, 2001, hundreds of bright and beautiful, smart and successful people who only moments before were literally on top of the world, were forced to make the awful decision to end their own lives by stepping out into the abyss. No one can know how completely terrifying and insane that decision must have felt.

None, that is, but the 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

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This entry was posted on March 25, 2011 by in Tracking the Past and tagged , , , .
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