Remembering The Triangle Fire 100 Years Later

March 23, 2011 11:30 am ET — Kate Conway

Rep. Fred Upton

This is the first in a series of items Political Correction will be publishing in conjunction with the Cry Wolf Project on the history and legacy of the Triangle Fire in commemoration of its 100th anniversary this Friday.

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch building in New York City, where employees of the Triangle Waist Company — primarily young immigrant women — were wrapping up a Saturday spent stitching shirtwaists, a popular women's garment.

Crowded and unclean conditions, including heaps of flammable material haphazardly discarded throughout the room, allowed the fire to spread rapidly, reaching the ninth and tenth floors, which were also owned by the Triangle Company. Limited numbers of workers were able to escape via the elevator and through the stairwell until it became blocked by flame.

When the women tried to open a second exit door, they found it locked. After the fact, in the trial of factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris for manslaughter (of which they were acquitted), workers testified that Blanck and Harris often kept the door locked because of an obsessive concern with employee theft — locking one door forced all the workers out the other, which allowed them to check bags for stolen shirtwaists or scraps of cloth.

With no exits available, workers crammed themselves onto a flimsy fire escape, which hung over an airshaft that provided no real means of escape from the building. Under their weight, the fire escape broke. Others waited for the fire department to arrive, only to find that the hoses and ladders didn't reach the top floors. Desperately, women flung themselves out of the windows towards blankets and nets below, which failed to break their fall.

By the end of the fire, 146 people had died because of lax and poorly enforced safety rules that existed despite increasing demands for better working conditions. In 1909, the Triangle Company's workers had initiated a strike that spread across the garment industry, demanding safer working conditions, fewer hours, and better pay. Although some of their more minor demands were met, Blanck and Harris refused to allow the garment workers to unionize, and when work resumed factory conditions were as dire as before.

For more on the history of the Triangle Fire, click HERE.