On this day in 1911 a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. 146 garment workers died either in the blaze or when they tried to jump from the building. It remains the biggest industrial disaster in NYC and the fourth largest in the whole of the United States. It happened because of graft, corruption and a heinous lack of concern for the safety of the women who worked there. This is what led up to it and what happened on that day.
The factory occupied the top three floors of the Asch Building (now the Brown Building) on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village. It was owned by Issac Harris and Max Blanck. The factory was known to be unsafe; there were four elevators to the factory floors, but only one worked. For the workers to get to it they had to file along a long narrow corridor. There were two staircases, but one led to a locked door (to prevent theft) and one led to a door that could only be opened from outside. The fire escape was narrow and unsafe and it would have taken the workers hours to escape if using it. The factory was also very much a sweatshop. The women there worked long hours for low pay and were packed in tight. Most of them were recent immigrants and few of them spoke English. The safety violations were well-known as were the dangers inherent in garment factories, but city officials were happy to accept bribes and overlook them. Harris and Blanck, the factory owners, were known to be anti-worker and had played a strong role in strike-breaking in the previous year.
On Saturday 25th March 1911, there were 600 workers in the factory along with the owners and their children who were visiting/slumming it. The fire broke out toward the end of the working day at about 4.40pm. What caused the fire is not really known. It started in a rag bin that hadn’t been emptied in months. It may have been a match, an improperly extinguished cigarette, or a spark from a faulty machine. Once the fire started it caught very quickly. The manager tried to put it out using a fire hose, but the hose had
rotted and the valve was rusted shut. There was panic and the women tried to escape. Many ran to the lift which could only take 12 passengers at a time. It made four ascents and descents before the heat and flames led it to break down. 36 workers plunged to their death in the elevator shaft as they desperately tried to escape the flames. More ran to the stairwell, only to find the locked door when they got to the bottom of the stairs; many of these were burned alive. Some went to the fire escape, which buckled under their weight and these fell 100ft to their death on the streets below. It got even worse. Women started jumping from the windows to escape the fire, many fell on fire hoses, delaying the attempts to extinguish the blaze. When the fireman put up their ladders they only reached to the seventh floor and the fire was on the eighth floor. In order to catch the falling women nets were opened to catch them. These broke under the weight of more than one woman jumping into them at a time.
It was all over within 20 minutes. 36 people dead in the elevator shaft, 58 dead from jumping or falling, with two who died of their injuries later. The rest of the dead were either burned alive or suffocated by the smoke. Louis Waldman who would later become a socialist assemblyman for New York State, witnessed the scene and wrote about it many years later:
A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.
Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. 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, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. 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.
The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.
In the aftermath of this obscenely avoidable tragedy the factory owners were indited for manslaughter. Unsurprisingly they were acquitted. Civil suits were brought against them and they ended up paying out $75 per deceased victim to their surviving family. This was nothing to them as they had been paid $60,000 by their insurance company or roughly $400 per victim. Two years later Blanck was arrested for once again blocking a factory door during working hours. He was fined $20.
Some good came of it. The NY State Legislature set up the NY State Factory Investigating Committee. They NYC Fire Chief identified 200 other factories in New York where a comparable disaster was likely and in 1915 New York’s labour laws were modernised on the back of a report including the investigation into the fire. NY at this time was the most progressive state in the US with regard labour laws.
This year is the centennial of the event and it has been remembered by a gathering of labour activists, historians and artists. The really sad thing is that despite the many good safety checks put in place as a result of this horrific event, a century later it is still possible for employers to escape any real censure for the death of employees due to a failure to have proper safety procedures in place. Workers have rights, but their employers rights seem to trump theirs. Hopefully we will never again see a day as dark as this one was, but there are still individual cases, in the UK at least, of workers dying for no good reason and no one being held responsible.
Today is the birthday of Elton John who has done a lot of great work for charity, blah, blah, blah, irritating git-featured, baldy-bollocked wanker who gets right on my tits.
It is also the birthday of Sarah Jessica Parker who men like to abuse by being all “She looks like a horse” and “I don’t even want to have sex with her so why is she famous”. The ripostes to these remarks are “Yeah, ‘cos you’re so handsome. Not!” and “It’s not all about your cock. Fuckhead.” That said, she did make the utterly execrable Sex and the City 2 which is totally without redeeming qualities and deserved the scathing (“you’re not going to get a rant about this”) review from Mark Kermode. (If you haven’t heard this, do click, it starts out slow and works up into such a wonderfully coherent stream of vitriol, that it brings joy to the heart).
However, today is also the birthday of the wonderful, the incomparable, the recently slimmed down, beautifully voiced Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. She was born poor in 1942, she began her recording career with Columbia in 1961 and in 1966 she went with Atlantic and became the enormous success that she still is today. It’s not possible to listen to her recording of King and Goffin’s (You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman without feeling shivers of pure joy dancing up and down your spine. She is a wonder, she is a joy, she has won 18 Grammy awards. She is Aretha Louise Franklin. Happy birthday, your majesty, your renewed health is wonderful news for all of us, you are a fine and wonderful woman!