The American Tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the deadliest fires in all of American history. It claimed the lives of 148 of the workers, most of whom were women aged 16 to 23. Most of the women who died were Italian, German, Russian and Hungarian immigrants and spoke little to no English. This also caused a national outcry for factory safety rules.

The reason most of the workers perished in the 1911 fire is that the factory owners locked every single door during the work day to ‘prevent theft’. Therefore, the workers were unable to leave through the doors and crowded the very limited amount of fire escapes. The factory was 10-stories tall, and despite having two exits on the first floor, the workers were only allowed to go through the smaller, back exit. Which, of course, was kept locked during workdays. Owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris had their workers come in on that Saturday. Most sweatshop workers were given Saturday’s off or granted half-days. Not the shirtwaist workers. They were forced to work a full workday.

At 4:40 pm, the cries of ‘fire!’ were ringing throughout the eighth floor. Within minutes, the factory went up in flames. People were jumping down the elevator shafts to escape from the fire, falling to their deaths. Others passed out and died in staircases due to the heavy smoke. Many workers made their way to the roof, which ended up saving their lives. Several law students went to help them off of the roof, tying two short ladders together so the victims could climb down. They were able to save 150 workers that way, but it wasn’t so easy. It was reported that many men were kicking, pushing, and even biting to get young women out of their way., Overall, it was a complete mess with tons of people panicking. Workers were stampeding over each other, leaving many victims stomped to death. A lot of people jumping into safety nets did not wait their turn and ended up crushing the person who went before them, leading to their own death as well. It was a nightmare.

The biggest outcome of this was having the government come in to regulate factories so nothing like this would ever happen again. No one was ever held accountable for the deaths. The fire department wasn’t even sure what started the fire in the first place. Today, the Asch Building still stands at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in New York City. Its name has since been changed to the Brown Building. It’s now a part of New York University as a science lab. Students still report smells of smoke and ash in the hallways. Some have even said they’ve seen dirty women covered in soot walking around.

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