In 1900 and 1901, a ten-story concrete and steel building went up in the New York neighborhood of Greenwich Village. At the time, the building was known for its so-called fireproof rooms. After a horrible tragedy that killed 146 people, testimony by Fire Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo before the State Assembly stated, “There may be fire-proof buildings, but their contents are not.”
In 1910, a fire broke out at a garment factory in Newark, New Jersey. 25 women died and another 40 were injured. In response, FDNY Fire Chief Croker said, “This city may have a fire as deadly as the one in Newark at any time. There are buildings in New York where the danger is every bit as great as in the building destroyed in Newark. A fire in the daytime would be accompanied by a terrible loss of life.”
Chief Croker also gave testimony to the Board of Alderman in regards to the potential for calamitous fire outbreaks. He cited a lack of fire sprinkler systems, fire drills, and exits in addition to poor housekeeping, and locked and blocked exits.
In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory occupied the top three floors of the building. As we’ve seen in other fires, the business was a perfect fire waiting for a match.
The building only had two stairways, with exit doors that opened onto each floor inwards. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company routinely locked one set of doors to direct leaving employees to the other stairwell so they could be checked to make sure they weren’t stealing garments or fabric.
The building’s fire escape was narrow and passed by the iron shutters of the building’s rear windows. When opened, the shutters swung out and blocked the path of the fire escape.
While there were standpipes in each stairway with a house line at each outlet, fed by a 5000-gallon water tank on the roof, there were no fire sprinklers. Water-filled buckets were scattered on each floor.
Each floor consisted of a 125 foot by 125 foot open layout, with no interior walls that would hamper the spread of fire. In addition, as there were no rules against it, the floors were overcrowded with workers and a lot of work tables.
In addition to conditions ripe for a homicidal fire, the two owners of the factory were rumored to be of the belief that a fire and an insurance policy payout was a way to help their bottom line when fearing their competition would undersell and ruin them. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris developed a reputation for being the “victims” of after-hours fires in their factories in which unsold inventory caught fire and became large insurance checks.
As quitting time approached on Saturday, March 25th, 1911 there were about 500 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers spread across the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of then-called Asch Building. Less than an hour later, 146 of them would be dead. A survivor would recall a blue glow coming from beneath a table, from a bin where 120 layers of fabric were stacked in preparation for cutting. Flames then rose from the bin and ignited the tissue paper patterns that hung from the ceiling, which spread the flames across the room. The factory manager saw the fire spread and saw workers throwing buckets of water on the blaze, but they weren’t effective. The ignited tissue paper floated about the room, setting fire to table after table.
The Fire Marshal would later conclude that the likely cause of the fire was the disposal of an unextinguished match or cigarette butt. Although smoking was banned in the factory, workers were known to sneak cigarettes. Although Blanck and Harris were associated with four previous, suspicious fires at their factories, arson was not suspected in this case.
As the fire spread, a worker on the 8th floor called the 10th floor to warn them, but couldn’t get ahold of anyone on the 9th floor. The fire department was not called. The delayed alarm was calamitous. The efforts of employees to extinguish the fire were completely ineffective and the fire continued to grow. Valuable time which could have been used to evacuate the factory was lost. By the time the fire department arrived , the conflagration had complete control of the 15,000 square foot 8th floor, had extended to the 9th floor and, within 10 minutes, had completely control of the 10th.
Had a basic fire sprinkler system been installed, it not only would have controlled if not outright extinguished the fire, but would have also transmitted an alarm which would have notified the fire department.
As the fire burned, what was bad became worse.
The two elevator operators on duty tried to make as many trips as they could, squeezing twice the car capacity into each elevator as they made trips back and forth. Smoke and flames burst into the open metal cages of the cars as they passed the lower floors on the way to the 10th. Eventually, workers jumping into the elevator shaft to escape the heat made a crushing pile on top of the cars that prevented them from working.
The narrow fire escape was overcome by the weight of fleeing workers and collapsed, dropping 25 people 100 feet to the ground below. Some of them, their clothes and hair on fire, crashed through a skylight into a basement below, starting a fire there.
In desperation, people started to jump from the windows, 80 feet or more above the sidewalk and pavement below.
In 1911, the fire department of New York City was considered as having the most modern firefighting equipment. However, almost all of their vehicles were horse-drawn and the fire fighters themselves had no self-contained breathing apparatus, no fire-proof gloves, and their protective gear included only a helmet, a rubber coat, and rubber gloves.
Arriving fire fighting crews were able to use high pressure hoses to spray water all the way up to the 10th floor, however their tallest ladder could only reach as high as the 6th. They caught as many people as they could in life nets, however they ripped from the tremendous force they had to endure (a fire captain calculated that the force of a single body coming from a height of 9 floors was 11,000 pounds – life nets were generally considered good only for catching someone from 6 floors up or lower) and caught fire from catching victims with their clothes on fire. Workers would appear at the windows and get pushed by those behind them or would jump in pairs or groups – the life nets could not work under such conditions and eventually they were ordered put away so no one else was tempted to jump.
The fire hoses themselves were entangled by the number of fallen bodies, which had to be cleared away before hoses could be shifted or moved. The fire fighters themselves were in danger of being struck by falling bodies.
Of the 146 people who died, approximately 52 jumped, 50 burned to death on the 9th floor, 19 died jumping into the elevator shaft, and 25 when the fire escape collapsed.
Barely more than a month later, the Factory Investigating Commission was formed and traveled around the state to interview officials and observe conditions in factories. The investigation resulted in the New York State Labor Law. This sweeping legislation covered all aspects of labor in factories, including: exit doors must open outwards, exit doors cannot be locked, fire sprinkler systems are required, fire drills are required, mandated rubbish removal and housekeeping, and fire escapes.
In addition to the commission and the Triangle factory fire, the FDNY formed the Bureau of Fire Prevention. One of its first acts was to print 20,000 “No Smoking” signs in English, Italian, and Hebrew to be distributed to factories throughout New York.
The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were indicted on charges of first and second degree manslaughter. Since the jury felt it wasn’t proved they knew the exit doors were locked, they were acquitted. They were found liable for wrongful death during a civil suit and were made to pay $75 per deceased victim (approximately $2000 in 2019). Their insurance paid them $60,000 more than their reported losses – about $400 per casualty.
Two years later, Blanck was once again arrested for locking the door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20.