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The Daily Plant : Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fire On The Square – 100 Years Ago


Many New Yorkers were enjoying a balmy afternoon on Saturday, March 25, 1911. Washington Square Park was crowded with the children of immigrants playing around the fountain, couples on park benches, and old men absorbed in chess games. Carriages and shiny automobiles drove by the gleaming Washington Arch.

Just east of the park on Washington Place, about 500 garment workers employed at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, housed in the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of a modern loft structure called the Asch Building, were getting ready for their shift’s end at 4:45 p.m. Most of the employees of Triangle were young immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy, the majority of them women between 17 and 25. They worked a six-day week, cutting, sewing, assembling and packaging the latest women’s fashion – the shirtwaist, or blouse.

Just before quitting time, manager Samuel Bernstein noticed a small fire among cotton scraps (probably from a discarded match or cigarette), and tried to put out the fire himself. Despite poor communication between floors, within a few minutes of the fire’s discovery, hundreds left the building by elevators and stairs. Others, however, were trapped on the ninth floor as the flames spread up an airshaft. Co-owner Isaac Harris led dozens of frightened employees up to the rooftop of a neighboring building. Two dozen left the building by a fire escape, and fell to their death when it collapsed. Dispatched by a street callbox, fire engines quickly arrived at the scene.

Nearly 100 of the trapped employees jumped or fell from the Asch Building, unable to find a route to safety. Firefighters had stopped on the eighth floor to try to control the fire before moving to the ninth floor where dozens were trapped. Ladders reached only 60 feet, too low for the building’s upper floors, and safety nets for jumpers proved useless.

“By 5:15 p.m. – a little more than half an hour after it had sparked to life – the Triangle fire was under control on all three floors. In that brief span, the fire did more killing than any other workplace disaster in New York City for ninety years afterward,” wrote author David Von Drehle. In all, 146 women and men were lost.

New Yorkers were horrified by the disaster. Funerals for victims became occasions for demonstrations by labor unions. The two Triangle co-owners were indicted for manslaughter (they were later acquitted). One abiding myth of the fire was that all of the stairway doors had been locked by the owners; different accounts exist on this matter but what is known is that doors on one side of the building had been inoperable and prevented dozens from reaching a stairway.

Perhaps the most far-reaching impact of the fire was on New York’s Democratic machine, Tammany Hall. Previously a patronage operation dependent on the support of conservative business leaders, the Democratic Party became the proponent of reforms including workplace safety regulations and fair labor practices. Two sons of Tammany, Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, Sr., led a comprehensive investigation of factory conditions that resulted in landmark legislation. Smith rose to be governor and a presidential candidate and Wagner became an U.S. senator and a proponent of the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal policies.

Today, the Asch Building still stands at the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. Bought later by NYU and renamed the Brown Building, it now houses science laboratories. A plaque dedicated on March 25, 1961 to the Triangle victims still remains on the building. The last Triangle fire survivor, Rose Rosenfeld Freedman, died in 2001 at age 107.

Reprinted from the Daily Plant of 3/26/07

QUOTATION FOR THE DAY

“Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

Rose Schneiderman
Spoken on April 2, 1911 at the Triangle Memorial Meeting

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