100th Anniversary of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City (Video)

History of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The most lethal event to befall manufacturing in New York City history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire erupted in 1911, taking the lives of 146 victims. Most of those killed in the blaze were young garment workers of Jewish and Italian descent, and the fire helped to spur the expansion of the International Ladies' Garment Union, as well as legislation that guaranteed worker safety.

The fire started slightly before 5 p.m. on March 25, 1911, just as the Triangle Waist Company, located on the eighth through tenth floors of the Asch Building near Washington Square Park, was about to close up for the day. The Fire Marshal later concluded that the fire probably started in a scrap bin on the eighth floor, where a cigarette butt ignited two months' worth of fabric scraps. Cigarette smoking was technically not allowed in the factory, but the workers tended to smuggle in cigarettes and conceal the smoke by blowing it through shirt lapels. The New York Times speculated that sewing machine engines may have started the blaze, instead.

That particular day, about 500 factory workers, along with both of the company owners and their children, were in the factory. While a bookkeeper on the eighth floor managed to telephone employees on the tenth and warn them of the danger, the factory had no smoke alarms, and no means of notifying the employees on the ninth floor, since the doors to the stairwells and exits had all been locked by the managers.

Some employees fled to the roof, and others managed to escape via an elevator while it still worked. The sole stairwell that managed to be unlocked by a manager was rendered unusable by the fire within minutes, and employees that crowded a single fire escape found that it snapped under their weight, sending them plummeting 100 feet to their deaths. After the fire caused the elevator rails to contort, employees jumped down the empty shaft. Other employees simply jumped out of the windows.

The owners later lost a civil suit brought about by the victims' families, and reports compiled based on the disaster helped to encourage state legislation toward labor reform, specifically in the realm of workplace safety. Between the dual impetus of the fire itself, and the sway of the union ranks that swelled in its wake, New York became one of the most progressive states with regards to workplace safety.