Sunday, 14 December 2008


The fire appliance hurrying to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory blaze

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at 29, Washington Place on March 25th, 1911, was the largest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York, causing the deaths of 146 garment workers who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for safer and better working conditions for sweatshop workers in that industry.

crowds surveying the aftermath of the disastrous fire

The fire began on the eighth floor, possibly by a lit match or a cigarette or because of faulty electrical wiring. Most of the workers who were alerted on the tenth and eighth floors were able to evacuate. However, the warning about the fire did not reach the ninth floor in time which only had two doors leading out. One stairwell was already filled with smoke and flames by the time the seamstresses realised the building was on fire, and the other had been locked.

The single exterior fire escape, a flimsy, and poorly-anchored iron structure, soon twisted and collapsed under the weight of people trying to escape. The elevator also stopped working, cutting off that means of escape, partly because the panicked workers tried to save themselves by jumping down the shaft to land on the roof of the elevator.

Sixty-two of the women who died did so when, realising there was no other way to avoid the flames, broke the windows and jumped to the pavement nine floors below; much to the horror of the large crowd of bystanders gathering at street level. The fallen bodies and falling victims made it difficult for the fire department to approach the building.

fallen bodies littered the pavement outside

The company's owner, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had fled to the building's roof when the fire began and survived. They were later put on trial, but with the help of an adroit attorney won an acquittal. However, they lost a subsequent civil suit in 1913, and the plaintiffs won compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty. What they lacked in care for the health and safety of their workers, they sure made up with an ability to line their own pockets.

29, Washington Place today

The building survived the fire and was refurbished and later purchased by property speculator and philanthropist Frederick Brown, who later donated the building to New York University in 1929, where it is now known as the Brown Building of Science. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and named a National Historical Landmark in 1991 and a New York City Landmark in 2003. Two plaques in the front of the building commemorate the women who lost their lives in the fire.

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