Then they all began to drop. The crowd yelled "Don't jump!" but it was jump or be burned the proof of which is found in the fact that fifty burned bodies were taken from the ninth floor alone.
All quotes from the New York Times, March 26, 1911
Saturday, March 25, 1911 started off like any other early spring Saturday in New York City in the early 20th Century. The work week for many people was six days, so people went to work, although Saturday was special, in that it was a seven hour day instead of nine. At the corner of Greene and Washington Place, just east of Washington Square Park, a work force of 600 garment workers, mainly young immigrant women, went to their factory on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors -- the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
Late in the day, a fire started. It was likely triggered by an unextinguished match or cigarette butt in a scrap bin on the 8th floor -- a collection of the waste cuttings from trimming the cloth for the blouses made at the factory. The fire spread very quickly. There were no alarms. While a phone call to the tenth floor warned the workers there of the fire, on the ninth floor the only warning was when the fire arrived. The workers on the 8th floor were able to escape, and all but one worker on the tenth floor escaped via the roof to a neighboring school. On the ninth floor, though, the fire blocked access to one staircase, and other exits were locked. The foreman with a key escaped, leaving others behind.
Five girls who stood together at a window close the Greene Street corner held their place while a fire ladder was worked toward them, but which stopped at its full length two stories lower down. They leaped together, clinging to each other, with fire streaming back from their hair and dresses. They struck a glass sidewalk cover and it to the basement. There was no time to aid them. With water pouring in upon them from a dozen hose nozzles the bodies lay for two hours where they struck, as did the many others who leaped to their deaths.
The fire departments of the time had ladders, but they could only reach up six floors. The only escape for many of the workers was via a single external fire escape, and a pair of elevators. The fire escape collapsed from the heat of the fire. The elevator operators -- Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo -- made three runs to the ninth floor, saving many lives. They eventually had to give up when the rails of the elevator buckled from the heat of the fire.
The women who remained faced a horrific choice -- death by fire or death by jumping. Some jumped down the elevator shaft, others jumped out the windows. Still others died trying to break out the locked doors.
They jumped, the crashed through broken glass, they crushed themselves to death on the sidewalk. Of those who stayed behind it is better to say nothing except what a veteran policeman said as he gazed at a headless and charred trunk on the Greene Street sidewalk hours after the worst cases had been taken out:
"I saw the Slocum disaster, but it was nothing to this."
"Is it a man or a woman?" asked the reporter.
"It's human, that's all you can tell," answered the policeman.
It was just a mass of ashes, with blood congealed on what had probably been the neck.
The fire burned hot and fast. The firemen got the fire under control in less than an hour, and the unpleasant task of removing the bodies began. In that era, the custom of identify the victims was not as prevalent, particularly when they were from the working class. 146 people died, either from the fire, or from jumping, but the last victims were not identified until February of this year.
Although not the worst industrial disaster in American history, it may have been the most momentous.
It may convey some idea too, to say that thirty bodies clogged the elevator shaft. These dead were all girls. They had made their rush their blindly when they discovered that there was no chance to get out by the fire escape. Then they found that the elevator was as hopeless as anything else, and they fell there in their tracks and died.
After the fire there was a cry for justice. The owners of the factory, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were indicted for manslaughter due to the locked door that prevented the escape of the workers on the ninth floor.
At trial, the prosecution witnesses testified that the owners were obsessed with employee theft, and defense witnesses testified that the key to the door in question was available. In the end, the jury voted to acquit, one juror admitting that he believed the door to be locked, but he couldn't find the owners guilty unless he believed the owners knew the door was locked.
One girl, who waved a handkerchief at the crowd, leaped from a window adjoining the New York University Building on the westward. Her dress caught on a wire, and the crowd watched her hang there till her dress burned free and she came toppling down.
Later civil suits were settled for an average of $75 per life.
The fire had a major impact on labor. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and other garment workers' unions became radicalized, calling for greater protections for workers and better safety regulations. As a result, New York State ended up with some of the strongest labor laws in the country. These laws later became the model for the New Deal, and the basis for workers rights throughout the United States.
With the continuing fight to preserve workers' rights today in Wisconsin and other states, we should remember those who died in the past to help give us the rights we have now.