The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Over 140 people died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Building fire in New York city. Many were young immigrant girls who had been toiling in bad conditions for low wages.

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company employed nearly 500 people. The building, which was located at the corner of Washington and Green streets, was a garment factory that was staffed primarily with young immigrant workers. The workers, who were mostly young women, were overwhelmingly Europeans who had come to this country seeking a better life for themselves.

Work at the factory was tortuous and difficult. Many of the workers toiled long hours for very little pay. March 25, 1911 was a Saturday, and closing time was drawing near when something caused a fire to break out on the top floors of the building. Investigations still have not made it clear what started the fire. Speculation hinges on a spark from machinery. Within minutes, a substantial portion of the building was ablaze.

It was clearly evident that problems would occur. The fire department arrived, but their hoses and ladders were not powerful not tall enough to reach the top floors where most of the stranded women were. A further matter was the fire escape, or lack thereof. The ninth floor fire escape was pitifully weak, and it essentially led nowhere. During the fire, many women tried to flee the flames via the escape, but it collapsed under everyone's weight.

As crowds gathered and watched, a scene of horror played itself out. Unable to reach the stranded victims on the higher floors of the buildings, the firefighters could do little but watch. Many of the victims began leaping to their deaths rather than burn alive. Some tumbled over and over, while others jumped straight down in a resolute fashion. One newspaper account reported that one of the girls actually laid her hat on the windowsill in a deliberate fashion before jumping. Nets were arranged on the street to cushion the falls of some, but the nets themseleves split under the impact.

By the time the fire was over, the death count had risen to 146 people. Bodies littered the building, many grotesquely burned beyond recognition by the intense flames and heat. At the time, New York's fire chief called it the worst fire disaster since the burning of the Brooklyn theatre years earlier. Though such technology was available at the time, the Triangle buildling had no fire sprinkler systems installed in it.

In the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the public cried out for better building safety codes and more comprehensive measures to insure that such a disaster would not repeat itself. The International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, in addition to declaring a day of mourning, pleaded for precautions to avert a repeat of such a disaster.

Fire safety codes today are extremely comprehensive. Now, sprinkler systems must be installed as a matter of law, and fire escapes must be sturdily constructed and be able to withstand a great deal of weight. Many of the advancements in fire safety can be directly attributed to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

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