A High Cost: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the Tri...

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the Triangle Waist Company (Photo credit: Kheel Center, Cornell University)

They were called the ‘Shirtwaist Kings’. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and in-laws, ruled over the employees like absolutist kings. But for those working under the duo, the job would have to do. In an era where there was always another immigrant waiting to take the job, one couldn’t be too choosy over working conditions and wages. It was the same everywhere else. Most of the employees were Italian and Russian teenage girls. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was located in the Asch building that sat on Washington Place and Greene St. Said to be ahead of its time, the building was designed to be fireproof. Blanck and Harris had moved into the 9th floor in 1902. By 1908 they also occupied the 8th and 10th floor.

In 1909 a huge strike was launched, protesting the working conditions. This strike came to be known as the Uprising of 20,000. In this strike, mainly smaller shops, the management gave in to many of the strikers’ requests. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company wasn’t one of them. Blanck and Harris were not about to be ‘pushed around’ by a bunch of women and girls. Although it was against the law doors were kept locked to insure that shirtwaist workers didn’t make off with the company’s goods. Workers were even searched before leaving the workplace, to see if they were stealing from the company. While there is no doubt that theft did actually happen at times, Blanck and Harris were disregarding regulations. And it would prove fatal. Doors swung in, instead of out.

All doors leading in or to any such factory shall be constructed as to open outwardly, where practicable, and shall not be locked, bolted, or fastened during working hours -New York State Labor Laws Article VI, Sec. 80

Also the building lacked a 3rd staircase. The builder, Joseph J. Asch, rather installed an exterior fire escape in its place. The company never held fire drills. Before the 1911 fire, numerous others had started. Some say they were rather suspicious, with Blanck and Harris wishing to collect the insurance money.

And then it happened. On March 25, 1911, at 4:45 PM employees were picking up their pay and preparing to leave for an evening of relaxation or entertainment. On the 8th floor employees spotted the fire.

Joseph Granick, Cutter, 8th floor : Eva Harris said she smelled something burning. I looked to the cutting tables. At the second table, through the slot under the top, I saw the red flames.

The buckets of water that were kept on hand were not enough to quell it, though, as it rapidly spread. Highly flammable scraps laid around, feeding the fire. Hoses were also proving worthless, as water refused to come out. The fire department was alerted. Although smoking was not allowed, cutters usually disregarded this rule. It is highly probable that this was the cause of the fire, although it still remains to be seen. On the 8th floor, at the sight of the fire the 125 employees panicked. Women and girls pushed against the door struggling to open it. It  was locked. Another employee by the name of Travis Brown was able to unlock the door, but only after battling the hysterical crowd. Because the doors swung instead, with people piling up against the door, opening was a challenge.

Abe Gordon, Machinist, 9th floor: I was working on the floor at the time of the fire. The first thing I knew about the fire was the heavy smoke coming up from the freight side. There was a table in front of the windows where the fire escape was and they were full of boxes and waists. I pushed the waists away and jumped up on the table and climbed on the fire escape. I and my friend went down the fire escape and I could hear all the screaming and hollering in back of us and I don’t know whether it was on the 6 or 7 floor where we opened the window and stepped back in the building. I still had one foot out on the fire escape when I heard noise and turned around and people were falling, screaming all around. The fire escape collapsed — no wonder, it was rusty on rust and no good.

Horse-drawn fire engines in street, on their w...

Horse-drawn fire engines Courtesy Wikipedia

With all forms of escape gone the girls took to the windows. Those that jumped from the height that they did, did not survive. Girls held hands and jumped together in little groups to the horror of bystanders. A woman named Celia ‘Sally’ Weintraub survived the jump only to die in a hospital. The impact of the falling bodies also caused a cellar skylight to fall through. Nets proved ineffective as the employees tore though them or bounced out of them. The two elevator operators were able to get many away on the 8th floor, as well as the 10th, but by the time they came to the 9th, the elevator tracks were either destroyed by the intense heat or falling bodies rendered them useless. When the elevators didn’t stop, some employees jumped down the shafts. Those who missed their grab for the elevator cable fell to their deaths. On the 10th floor, Max Blanck worried for the safety of his two daughters that had come to visit that day. Harris and Blanck along with others headed for the roof. From there students and professors from New York University next door, laid ladders across and helped the survivors across.

Approximately half and hour later the fire was extinguished. 146 lives had been taken, needlessly. Those who died in the tragedy had been a large source of financial aid to their poverty stricken families. Not to mention the grief the families experienced.

Charles Will Thompson, Journalist: The first impression when I got down there and looked at the building where the Triangle Waist Company had burned up 145 girls and men was that I would like to hold the rope if there was any general movement to hang Harris & Blanck. It conveys no picture to the imagination to say that the fire was 100 feet above the street: figures don’t make pictures. But when you stand on the street and almost topple over backward craning your neck to see a place away up in the sky, and realize the way those bodies came hurtling down over the inconceivable distance, it seems more as if it were 100 miles.

Bodies were taken to ‘Misery Lane’, 26th Street Pier, where they awaited identification by family or friends, Those beyond recognition were identified by personal effects. A number of families lost more than one family member. Only recently have 6 bodies been identified.

People and horses draped in black walk in proc...

People and horses draped in black walk in procession in memory of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire Courtesy Wikipedia

For awhile no one could place the blame. In a cartoon published in the New York Evening Journal paper it showed the gallows. Beside it read, “This ought to fit somebody; Who is he?” In April Blanck and Harris were indicted.The trial didn’t get underway until December. In the meantime New York City grieved the shameful loss. Many including former employees, were furious at the disaster. They had lost friends, family and coworkers. And as a slap in the face three days after the fire the factory had reopened in another part of the city. Blanck would go on to violate more regulations, disregarding them as usual. Apparently for Blanck and Harris ‘the show must go on’.The trial would span 18 days, with evidence given by 155 witnesses. However, Blanck and Harris were found not guilty. Furious a crowd, some no doubt just rabble-rousers itching for a fight, shouted to the Shirtwaist Kings that the two were murderers. Three years later 23 families sued the in-laws and received $75 recompense for each of their lost loved ones. There were laws, of course. Laws that maybe could have saved all of the those 146 lives. They just were not enforced. The who were to enforce them were understaffed and overworked if you consider the number of factories that were to be inspected. More laws would come. Thirty six, to be exact. They were better enforced and changes took the industries by storm. Nevertheless, it was at a high cost.

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16 thoughts on “A High Cost: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire

  1. This fire reminds me of the Hartford Circus Fire, especially because of identified victims part. I have been meaning to read the book that is out there about this fire. I enjoyed your pictures and article. We cannot forget that fires have no prejudice.

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  2. Good Post.
    I would only note that many of our electrical and life safety codes (specifically NFPA 70 and NFPA 101) date their origins from this fire. So while it while it was an unmitigated horror for those involved, it has saved countless lives since, as has more honest enforcement. Not always, everywhere, of course, but over all.

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  3. What gets me is that Blanck and Harris were found not guilty. But they didn’t get away scot-free — I read somewhere that people were reluctant to do business with them after this fire. I think of the poor Triangle victims every time I see a sprinkler that guards my safety.

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    • Yes, that bugged me. After all they were the one’s mainly responsible for the event. Things most likely would have turned out differently had they not been ‘skin-flints’ and indifferent to regulations. Thanks for reading!

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  4. This is another sad story… A really disgusting story (when you consider the morals and ethics of Harris and Blanck. I wonder if they would have cared at all if their daughters had not been in the building?

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    • Hmm, when I think of it that way, they may have been tripping over each other trying to save themselves. When the pair show no regard for all of those poor people working for them, some of them really children, then I don’t put much stock in their honor. Thanks for your comments!

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