This Day in Jewish History

1911: Fire Breaks Out at New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

The worst industrial disaster in New York City's history took the lives of many Jewish and Italian immigrants, and led to a massive overhaul in the city's labor laws.

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March 25, 1911 is the day that fire broke out at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, trapping and killing 146 workers inside. It was the worst industrial disaster in the city’s history, and the public outrage that resulted from the negligence that characterized the conditions in the factory led to the passage of a number of laws meant to improve industrial safety in New York.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (“shirtwaist” is a term that refers to a woman’s tailored shirt) was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, and was situated on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors of a building at the corner of Greene St. and Washington Place, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. It employed some 1,000 people – although the number working that day was about half that -- most of them young Jewish and Italian immigrant women who earned between $5 and $12 for a six-day workweek. The oldest victim of the fire was 43; the youngest two were 14.

Triangle was a non-union shop, and had been the site of a massive drive for union recognition by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union two years earlier. The owners responded to that drive by firing most of the women who joined the union.

The day of the fire was a Saturday, and as it turned out, the factory’s owners were actually visiting the site that day, together with their children. The cause of the fire, which broke out on the eighth floor at 4:40 P.M., is unknown, though it was likely a smoldering cigarette butt or dropped match – although smoking was prohibited in the plant. Many on the eighth floor were able to escape, but those on the ninth floor found themselves trapped. There was no fire alarm in the building, and of two sets of stairs that could have been used to exit, one was inaccessible because of the fire, and the other was locked. A fire escape buckled from the heat, and two elevators used to evacuate employees quickly became unusable. Sixty-two people tried to save themselves by jumping from the roof of the 10-story building.

One witness, who had been sitting in the nearby Astor Library, described some years later what he saw that day: “Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below … Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.”

Most of the deaths in the disaster were caused by asphyxiation, burns or the impact of falling – or a combination of the three. In addition to the 146 dead – 129 women and 17 men – 71 people suffered injuries. Six of the victims, whose bodies had been buried in a common grave, were identified only a century later.

The ILGWU organized large rallies in response to the fire, and a silent demonstration held on April 5, the day when the unidentified victims were buried, drew some 500,000 mourners.

Although Blanck and Harris were both indicted on charges of manslaughter, they were both acquitted at trial. In a subsequent civil case brought by the families of 23 victims, both were ordered to pay compensation of $75 per victim. Their insurance reimbursed the owners for some $60,000 more than their reported losses.

In the years that followed, New York adopted some 60 new labor laws that regulated both physical and employment conditions in the state’s factories. Buildings had to have extinguishers and fire alarms, improved toilet and food facilities, and of course accessible exits for emergencies. New limits were placed on the number of hours that women and children could work. And regular commemorations of the fire of that day have remained rallying cries for employees’ rights and to protest the exploitation of migrant workers.