At the end of the work day on March 25, 1911, Isidore Abramowitz, a cutter at the Triangle Waist Company located on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in the heart of Manhattan’s Garment District, had already pulled his coat and hat down from their peg when he noticed flames billowing from the scrap bin near his cutting table. It was about 4:40 p.m., and within minutes the fire swept through the factory and killed more than 140 of the 500 people who worked there. The conflagration, for some 90 years considered the deadliest disaster in New York City history, would usher in an era of reform with implications far beyond those of mere workplace safety.

The Jewish and Italian immigrants working at Triangle, most of them young women, produced the fashionable shirtwaists— women’s blouses loosely based on a man’s fitted shirt—popularized by commercial artist Charles Dana Gibson, whose famous “Gibson Girl” had become the sophisticated icon of the times. Beginning in late 1909, these workers participated in a major strike led by the Women’s Trade Union League demanding a shorter working day and a livable wage. The garment workers had also protested the deplorable working conditions and dangerous practices of the industry’s sweatshops. A large proportion of these firetraps, like Triangle, were located in Manhattan’s crowded Lower East Side.

The factory workers had support not only from the left wing of the American labor movement but also among the city’s wealthy progressives. Such socially prominent women as Anne Morgan (banker J.P. Morgan’s daughter) and Alva Belmont (tycoon William H. Vanderbilt’s ex-wife, who married banker Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont) ensured tremendous publicity for the strikers, and they helped stage a huge rally at Carnegie Hall on January 2, 1910. But they met with adamantine resistance from factory owners, led by Triangle partners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who hired thugs from Max Schlansky’s private detective agency to break up the strike. The owners in general enjoyed the backing of Tammany Hall boss Charles F. Murphy, which meant not only that the New York police were hostile to the workers but that strikebreakers were also available from the street gangs employed as muscle by Murphy’s political machine.

When the strike ended, although the owners had agreed to some minor concessions and the radical newspaper The Call declared the strike a victory, little had truly changed, and everyone on the Lower East Side knew it. Certainly the workers at Triangle still put in long hours for penurious wages, without breaks, in an airless factory located on the top three floors of a hazardous 10-story firetrap. Scraps from the pattern cutters piled up in open bins and spilled over at the workers’ feet, where the higher paid cutters, often men, dropped the ashes or even tossed the smoldering butts of the cheap cigars they smoked.

Because Blanck and Harris feared pilfering by their employees, access to the exits was limited, despite the city’s fire regulations. At closing, workers were herded to the side of the building facing Greene Street, where partitions had been set up to funnel one worker at a time toward the stairway or the two freight elevators before they could leave the building for the day. This allowed company officials to inspect each exiting employee and his or her belongings for stolen tools, fabric or shirtwaists. The stairway and passenger elevators on the opposite side of the building, facing Washington Place, were reserved for management and the public. The only other egress was a narrow and flimsy fire escape on the back side of the building, opposite Washington Place, that corrupt city officials in 1900 had allowed Blanck and Harris to substitute for the third stairway legally required by the city. Access to it was partially blocked by large worktables.

These arrangements all fed the disaster when the fire broke out as the result—the fire marshal later ruled—of a match or a smoldering cigarette or cigar tossed into Abramowitz’s scrap bin. The loosely heaped scraps of sheer cotton fabric and crumpled tissue paper flared quickly, and the fire was blazing within seconds. Accounts of the chaos that erupted vary greatly, but apparently Abramowitz reached up, grabbed one of the three red fire pails on the ledge above his coat rack, and dumped it on the flames. Other cutters snatched pails and tried in vain to douse the exponentially spreading blaze. Despite their efforts, the fabric-laden old structure, ironically called the Asch Building, began to burn quickly and fiercely.

Factory manager Samuel Bernstein directed his employees to break out the fire hoses, only to find them completely useless. Some claimed the uninspected hoses had rotted through, while others asserted that either the water tanks on the roof were empty or the flow of water from them was somehow blocked. Having lost precious minutes in fruitless attempts to control the blaze, the workers looked for the means of escape.

A few rushed to the solitary, poorly constructed and inadequately maintained fire escape, which descended from the 10th floor to the 2nd, stopping above a small courtyard. Some of the young women who used it fell from one landing to the next; one of the male employees fell from the 8th floor to the ground. Others madly rushed toward the inward-opening doors on the Washington Place side, preventing them from being opened. (Some later claimed these doors were locked.) As more and more workers piled up at the doors, those at the front were nearly crushed. Only with great effort did Louis Brown, a young shipping clerk, bully his way through the pressed bodies and muscle them away from the exit so that he could open the doors. On the opposite side of the building, panicked workers who tried to exit the 8th floor on the Greene Street side were slowed by the funneling partitions, and found the stairway and elevators already jammed with workers fleeing from the 9th and 10th floors.

Afterward, there was much confusion and a lot of debate about which floor the Washington Place passenger elevators visited and when. The elevator operators—Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillo— certainly risked their lives by returning to burning floors to carry their co-workers to safety. They probably visited the 8th floor first, saving a lot of lives even as the panic there set in. Then they headed up to the 10th floor, the executive floor. Zito later guessed that they went to 10 twice, dropping off the first group only to find the floor empty on the next trip up.

All 70 workers on the 10th floor managed to escape, as did Blanck (and the two daughters he’d brought to work with him) and Harris, who showed a good deal of bravery in his efforts to save many of his 10th-floor employees. They all got out either by the early elevator trips, by way of the staircases or by ascending to the roof. New York University law students in a taller, adjacent building lowered ladders to the roof of the Asch Building, and the workers inched their way up them to safety.

Of all the Triangle employees, the 260 who worked on the 9th floor suffered the worst fate. According to some accounts, the alert and the fire reached them at the same time. The Greene Street exit was quickly jammed, and the doors to the Washington Place stairwell were found to be locked. Since the elevator car itself was packed with 10th-floor employees, some clambered down the greasy cables of the freight elevator.

Elevator operator Zito peered up the elevator shaft as those left behind faced grim choices. “The screams from above were getting worse,” he later reported. “I looked up and saw the whole shaft getting red with fire….They kept coming down from the flaming floors above. Some of their clothing was burning as they fell. I could see streaks of fire coming down like flaming rockets.”

Others on the 9th floor wedged their way into the Greene Street staircase and climbed up to the roof. Still others ran to the fire escape, which proved incapable of supporting the weight of so many. With an ear-rending rip, it separated from the wall, disintegrating in a mass of twisted iron and falling bodies. In complete desperation, some 9th-floor workers fled to the window ledges. The firemen’s ladders would not reach beyond the 6th floor, so the firefighters deployed a safety net about 100 feet below, and they exhorted the victims to jump. Some of the young women, in terror, held hands and jumped in pairs. But the weight of so many jumpers split the net, and young men and women tore through it to their deaths.

An ambulance driver bumped his vehicle over the curb onto the sidewalk, hoping against hope that jumpers might break their fall by landing on his roof. Deliverymen pulled a tarpaulin from a wagon and stretched it out. The first body to hit it ripped it from their hands. “The first ten [to hit] shocked me,” wrote reporter William Gunn Shepherd before he looked up and saw all the others raining down.

Fifteen minutes after the fire started, the firemen—even then New York’s finest, the pride of the city—were within moments of bringing the fire on the 8th floor under control. But the 9th was hopeless. On the 9th, the fire took over the entire floor. Later, burned bodies were found piled up in a heap in the loft. A second scorched cluster was discovered pressed up against the Greene Street exit, where they had been caught by the blaze before they could get out. At the time, the crowds watching could see groups of girls trapped in burning window frames, refusing to jump. When they could hold out no longer, they came tumbling through the windows in burning clumps.

Then it was over. The last person fell at about 4:57 p.m., and there was nothing left to do but deal with the dead—146 broken bodies. During the next few days, streams of survivors and relatives filed through the temporary morgue on 26th Street to identify the dead. Eventually, all but six were given names.

Even before the bodies stopped falling, veteran newsman Herbert Bayard Swope had interrupted District Attorney Charles Seymour Whitman’s regular Saturday news briefing at his apartment in the Iroquois Hotel to announce the disaster. Whitman immediately rushed to the scene and began looking for somebody to blame. Since he couldn’t go after the city itself, he got a grand jury to charge Blanck and Harris with negligent homicide for locking the doors to the back stairway. Defended in a celebrated trial by famed Tammany mouthpiece Max D. Steuer, himself a former garment worker, the “Shirtwaist Kings” were acquitted, much to the outrage of progressives everywhere.

But watching the fire that day was a young woman named Frances Perkins. Perkins happened to be enjoying tea with a friend who lived on the north side of Washington Square. She heard the fire engines and arrived just in time to see the bodies begin to fall. Already a rising star in the progressive firmament, she never forgot what she saw, and she never let it go. Through her efforts, and the efforts of others like her, the horrible images of the Triangle fire brought an anguished outcry for laws to compel heedless, greedy, cost-cutting manufacturers to provide for the safety of employees.

The pre-fire strikes, coupled with the Triangle disaster and its aftermath, unified union organizers, college students, socialist writers, progressive millionaires and immigrant shop workers. Tammany Hall boss Murphy quickly sensed that a transformation of the Democratic Party could take advantage of this new progressive coalition at the ballot box. As a result, he fully supported the New York Factory Investigating Commission, formed three months after the fire, to inspect factories throughout the state. The “Tammany Twins,” Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner, who were the driving force behind the investigation, backed Perkins as she sat on the commission and took the lead in shaping its findings. The commission’s report, compiled during 21⁄2 years of research, brought dramatic changes to existing laws and introduced many new ones.

Smith, of course, went on to become governor of New York and the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1924 and 1928. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt followed in his footsteps and actually won election to the office in 1932, he brought Perkins with him into his New Deal, as the first female Cabinet member (secretary of labor), and Wagner as an adviser who drafted some of the most important progressive legislation in the country’s history. In many ways, it is fair to say that the modern American welfare state of the 20th century’s middle decades rose from the ashes of the Triangle fire.

 

Originally published in the April 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here