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Anniversary of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

March 25, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac

Thanks for The Writer’s Almanac for reminding us that the New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned down on this date (March 25) in 1911.  Also, we remember Frances Perkins on this day; she worked tirelessly to bring about fire safety reforms in New York City. 

“One hundred and forty-six workers — most of them immigrant women and girls — died in the fire or shortly afterward. It remained the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City until the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

The owners of the factory were Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, known as New York’s “Shirtwaist Kings.” They employed seamstresses to work 13 hours a day, seven days a week, at a rate of 13 cents per hour. Blanck and Harris already had a history of suspicious factory fires, because they would torch their buildings in the middle of the night to collect the insurance money. This isn’t what happened in the Triangle fire, but they had never installed fire sprinklers in the building in case they decided to burn it down as well. The building was horribly unsafe: the factory floors were cramped and overcrowded, the hallways and fire escape were extremely narrow, and only one of the four elevators worked. Of the two stairways that led to the street, one was locked to prevent the workers from sneaking out with stolen goods. The other opened inward, making it almost impossible to open when a panicked mob was trying to escape. The fire hose was rotted and the valve was rusted so badly it couldn’t be opened.

Six hundred workers were in the shop when the fire broke out in a rag bin on the eighth floor. Workers rushed to the elevator, but it only held 12 people at a time, and broke down after only a few trips. The lone fire escape collapsed. Some of the girls, desperate to escape the blaze, jumped down the elevator shaft or out the windows to their deaths. Blanck and Harris happened to be on a floor above the fire; they were able to make it to the roof, where they escaped to the building next door. They were later brought before a grand jury on manslaughter charges, but not indicted. Frances Perkins, who would later go on to be named Labor Secretary under FDR, witnessed the fire. She knew something had to be done about workplace conditions. “We’ve got to turn this into some kind of victory, some kind of constructive action,” she said. Perkins and New York governor Al Smith did finally bring about some safety reforms in New York City, including the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law.”

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