On March 25, 1911, people going about their business in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood were met by a horrifying sight. The Asch Building was ablaze—with many young garment workers trapped inside. In what would come to be known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, 146 people were killed after unsafe working conditions made it impossible for them to escape the engulfed building. The tragedy would shape the city’s safety standards and attitudes toward labor rights for decades to come.
Located near Washington Square Park, the Asch Building was a 10-story building that housed multiple businesses. The building was constructed in 1901 and is still standing today, despite the damage it sustained in 1911. It’s now known as the Brown Building and is owned by New York University.
Situated on the top three floors of the Asch Building was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which produced women’s blouses, known at the time as “shirtwaists.” The business primarily employed young women and girls. Many of these garment workers were Italian and Jewish immigrants who had recently arrived in the U.S. with the dream of creating a better life for themselves—hopes that would soon be dashed by dismal working conditions at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
At this point in time, labor was lightly and rarely regulated by the government, and there were few protections in place for workers. Employees at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory worked nine-hour weekdays, in addition to seven hours spent on the clock on Saturdays. They earned a pittance, with salaries ranging from $7 to $12 per week—the equivalent of $3.67 to $6.29 per hour in 2018 currency. Workers were as young as 14 years old.
Discarded fabric and other highly flammable materials littered the poorly-ventilated factory. Stairwells and exits were locked to prevent workers from stealing or taking unauthorized breaks. A flimsy and poorly anchored fire escape that may or may not have already fallen into disrepair had been constructed on the exterior of the building. Though these conditions were typical for the time period, they would prove downright deadly at the Asch Building on that fateful March day in 1911.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire likely started due to a discarded match or cigarette butt tossed in a scrap bin on the 8th floor, which would have held months’ worth of fabric cuttings. Due to the conditions mentioned above, a fire flared up at around 4:40 pm and quickly spiraled out of control, with many of the company’s employees none the wiser. A bookkeeper on the eighth floor was able to telephone the tenth floor (where managers had their offices) to warn them, but there was no way to contact the staff on the ninth floor.
Many factory employees were therefore unprepared when the flames reached them. Some people were able to escape to the roof of the building and wait there until they were rescued—including the factory’s two owners and their children, who were visiting that day—but many more were not so lucky.
One stairwell was blocked by flames, and the other had been locked from the outside by a foreman who had long since fled with the keys. Two elevator operators made multiple trips up and down to save as many people as they could. But they eventually had to stop when the rails warped due to the heat. When a few desperate victims attempted to escape by jumping into the elevator shaft and landing on top of the elevator, it was rendered completely inoperable.
Other employees tried to flee via the frail fire escape, but it quickly collapsed under heat and overload, sending about 20 victims plummeting to their deaths on the pavement below. Worse still, an additional 62 people jumped or fell out of the windows as a horrified crowd below looked on. Life nets held by firemen on the streets weren’t strong enough to sustain the impact of falling bodies, and with ladders only reaching up to the seventh floor, the fire department was woefully unequipped to deal with the fire.
All told, 23 men and 123 women and girls died as a result of the fire. The factory’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter, with the prosecution alleging that they knew the building’s exits were locked at the time in question. The men were eventually acquitted of the charges. They were later found liable of wrongful death during a civil suit, and ordered to pay $75 per victim to the plaintiffs.
The appalling and very public deaths of the young workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory quickly led to an outcry for better working conditions, and profoundly changed many people’s attitudes towards unions. Prominent unionists such as Rose Schneiderman pointed to the disaster as a life-or-death example when encouraging workers to organize for their own safety. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which played a critical role in women’s labor rights in the 20th century, saw its membership and influence grow in the wake of the tragedy.
Political reform took place, with New York City forming the Committee on Public Safety to identify issues and lobby for legislation that would offer solutions. The New York State Legislature created the Factory Investigating Commission, whose findings led to the creation of 38 new state laws regulating labor. The work week was shortened, and fire safety regulations were introduced. These changes helped modernize New York City.
Over a century later, the effects of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire can still be felt. The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition was formed in 2008, bringing together different organizations in support of labor unions, women’s rights, worker’s rights, and human rights more broadly. The Coalition held a ceremony on the tragedy’s centennial, in which thousands of people marched to commemorate the victims. They also asked churches, schools, and fire houses across the country to ring bells at 4:45 pm, the time that the factory’s fire alarm was sounded.
Thanks to the Coalition’s efforts, New York City is planning to create a permanent public art memorial at the Brown Building. The memorial will aim “To honor the memory of those who died from the fire; to affirm the dignity of all workers; to value women’s work; to remember the movement for worker safety and social justice stirred by this tragedy; [and] to inspire future generations of activists.” Ultimately, the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City’s history, and one of the deadliest in the country, would become a force for much-needed change.