Published March 23, 2011
This column is based on eyewitness accounts, trial transcripts, testimony, and information from the New York City Fire Dept. and the New York Historical Society.
It is the harrowingly small amount of sidewalk that may hit you when you stand in front of the building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where 100 years ago this March 25, 146 garment workers -- 129 women, 17 men -- perished in a murderous factory fire that ranks as one of the worst this nation has ever known.
Within this tiny space in time a century ago, immigrant workers from Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Russia, many of them Jewish, plunged to a horrific death, their hair and clothes on fire.
What else is striking is that this building is still with us today, it still stands in downtown New York City, east of Washington Square Park, as part of New York University.
Dig deeper, and you'll see that a shocking lack of safety standards, and not surprisingly the cold calculus of money, caused this horrific fire.
Galvanizes Labor Movement
It was a fire that would change America’s labor laws and worker safety standards forever.
It would electrify a fledgling labor movement, galvanizing women workers into pushing forward the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which fought to stop sweatshop worker abuses, child labor abuses and countless other labor infractions -- labor infractions that continue at oil rigs and coal and other mines around the world.
It is a fire that resonates to this day, as unions, artists and neighborhood groups plan to gather in front of the building this Friday, March 25, in commemoration and sorrow.
But the fire should not have been so appallingly lethal, since even the day after the fire, the walls and floors of the building remained largely intact, said my great grandfather, Thomas F. Dougherty, who helped run the New York City Fire Dept. for much of his 46-year career.
Dougherty analyzed, studied and worked on the fallout from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as assistant and acting chief of the department, and as Dean of the New York City Fire College.
There was something more beyond the infamous and well-known fact of locked exit doors imprisoning the workers in a deadly fire trap, my great grandfather and other top fire officials would warn.
Day of Infamy
Labor hazards ruled the day back then and management looked the other way, greedy until proven guilty. That was the political math at the time under the corrupt Tammany Hall regime that governed New York City.
“The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was a day of infamy,” says historian Lewis Lehrmman. “It reminds us that the role of government, while limited, must be to ensure public safety. Thus, the government must be strong enough to enforce the rules of the game. A referee without the power to throw the offender out of the game is an empty suit.”
Award-winning actress Tovah Feldsuh weighs in, too, see below.
The owners of the factory packed 450 workers into the three top floors of a 10-story building.
Most of the workers ranged from ages 16 to 23 years old -- one as young as 14, three were 15 years old -- many of whom were the main support for their immigrant families, earning on average $15 a week.
They sat toiling away making cotton shirtwaists, or blouses, at five rows of sewing machines the owners purposely situated close together, leaving no room for aisles or idle chatter.
The Fire Begins
At quitting time on that Saturday, 4:45 p.m., as the shades lengthened and the late afternoon turned to twilight, tinting the factory windows dusky grey, the women and men packed their things, collected their pay, hoping to hurry home for supper.
But the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire had just begun.
If the fire had started just minutes later, the workers would have been gone, and possibly no one would have died.
Five hours earlier, other companies had already let their workers go home.
The fire broke out on the northeast corner of the Greene Street side of the eighth floor at a cutter’s table, possibly from a cigarette. With ferocious rapidity, the flames flashed through linens and cottons cluttering the floor, bins and on wires above.
At 4:46 p.m., the Fire Department received a report from the vicinity of the fire, from a citizen. At 4:48 p.m., the first alarm rang.
Locked Doors Thwarted Escape
The girls rushed away from the Greene Street staircase, blocked by flames, to the Washington Street staircase.
But the owners had locked the Washington Street exit doors, because they wanted to funnel the women through the Greene Street stairs, where a watchman could more easily check their bags for theft of linens or thread. The operators of the two overburdened freight elevators would make as many trips as they heroically could, but would soon stop altogether from the fire--from girls jumping into the shaft.
Before the first fire engine arrived, girls began jumping outside. They continued crashing around the firemen as they fought desperately to get their ladders up.
Anguish shot through the firemen as they realized their ladders could only reach to the sixth floor of the building. A girl on the eighth floor tried to jump for a ladder, but missed it, hit the edge of a life net, and died.
Five little girls stood clutching each other on a ledge while a ladder worked toward them, stopping at its full length two stories down. A burst of flames, and the girls leapt, clinging to each other, fire streaming from their hair and dresses. Striking the glass sidewalk cover, meant to provide sunlight to cellars, they crashed into the basement.
A horse-drawn grocery wagon careened around the corner, its driver frantically calling onlookers to grip the sides of a wool horse blanket. Two terrified little girls clutched each other on an upper ledge as the fire roared. About one hundred feet below they looked down at Greene Street.
“C’mon, jump we’ll get you, jump,” they heard the cries from below. One little girl jumped. It didn’t work. Her friend followed. Both died.
Girls above watched those below leap to their deaths, but jumped anyway to avoid the flames.
Firemen running ahead of a horse drawn engine that had halted to avoid striking a body spread a fire net and looked up. One girl fell, end over end, struck the side of the net, and perished. Three other girls who followed died, too.
A girl all of about thirteen years old hung perilously for three minutes by her finger tips to a window sill on the tenth floor. A burst of flames hit her fingers and she plunged to her death.
A man stood at the reddened windows of the ninth floor furnace, gently helping four women jump “as if he were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity,” eye witness Bill Shepard reported. The last woman kissed him, then both plunged.
Another clutch of three little girls gripped each other, panic-stricken, white knuckled. “Hold still, the ladders are coming!” came the cries from below.
Hopeful, they clung to each other and waited -- until a burst of flames knocked them out into the open air, where they fell, hair and clothes ablaze.
Yet another girl waved a handkerchief at the crowd and leapt from a window adjoining the New York University building. Her dress caught on a wire. The crowd watched her hang there until her dress burned free and she came toppling down.
Eyewitness Shepard saw much of this, and “heard screams around the corner, and hurried there. What I had seen before was not so terrible as what followed,” he would write. He continued:
“Girls were burning to death before our eyes.. Down came bodies in a shower, burning, smoking, lighted bodies, with the disheveled hair of the girls trailing upward. They had fought each other to die by jumping instead of by fire.
“There were 33 in that shower. The flesh of some of them was cooked. The clothes of most of them were burned away. The whole, sound, unharmed girls who jumped on the other side of the street had done their best to fall feet down, but these fire-tortured, suffering ones fell inertly, as if they didn't care how they fell, just so that death came to them on the sidewalk instead of in the fiery furnace behind them."
Fire Escape Collapses
A crush of panicked workers flooded onto the single fire escape.
But the arthritic trellis peeled away, tossing two dozen people a hundred feet to their deaths.
Sixty-two workers died jumping or falling. Another 30 workers jumped inside to their deaths in the elevator shaft.
The fire lasted less than a half hour.
Helplessly witnessing girls in the windows burning to death on the ninth floor before their very eyes, burning bodies in a shower welcoming the pavement, crowds on the streets below reeled in horror, battering themselves against police barricades in an hysterical frenzy of pain.
Escaping to the rooftops were the foreman with the keys to the exit doors.
Escaping, too, were the two owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, who fled with his two daughters and a governess.
Students from the adjoining New York University helped 120 workers escape over the rooftops.
Within days of the fire, mourners numbering 100,000 marched through the city, most in protest, a quarter million lining the route.
Just a year before, in 1910, the same factory owners were cited for labor violations. And in 1909, New York saw its largest shirtwaist strike, 20,000 workers, primarily Jewish women. The Triangle girls had also gone on strike against the company to demand better working conditions, in an attempt to unionize. But company owners had reportedly hired thugs to bust up their attempts.
Blanck and Harris were later acquitted of manslaughter charges after their lawyer attacked the credibility of one of the survivors who, when repeatedly queried, gave the same rote answer, leading counsel to aver she was coached.
Their lawyer also drilled home that the prosecutors had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the owners knew at the time of the fire that the exit doors were locked.
“Errors by the lawyers for the estates of the dead caused a verdict for the insurance company, and that exacerbated the public furor over this,” says Andrew P. Napolitano, senior judicial analyst at Fox News.
A year later, in 1913, Blanck, would be fined just $20 for locking the doors to another factory.
The owners lost a civil suit in 1913, but they paid only about $75 per victim. Later, they got an insurance check for $60,000 more than they had reported as losses -- the two owners earned about $411 per victim. The factory soon went out of business.
Cold Calculus of Money Behind the Shirtwaist Fire
So why the horrific, unnecessary loss of life?
Because it was cheaper to buy fire insurance policies than invest money on fire prevention.
So, no warning systems, no fire sprinkler systems, only about two dozen buckets of water, no fire drills (not mandated by law yet), and no occupancy limits.
Workers weren’t told about the one escape route to the rooftop from the Greene Street staircase, where the fire started.
The Washington Street stairs didn’t go to the roof, its doors were locked, and the doors to both staircases opened inward, effectively held shut by the crush of escapees.
Next to the Washington place stairway, behind the locked door, firemen found a heap of twenty to thirty bodies. The stairs were built too narrow, as well, in order to accommodate wider factory floors.
Counting the Fire Escape as a Staircase
The building code required three flights of stairs, but with impenetrable indifference, this building had counted the one crippled fire escape as the third staircase.
Also, at that time, fire escapes were not built to bear the weight of more than a few people at a time. As this one proved when it failed.
Firemen Fight for Safety
New York City Fire Chief Ed Croker had fought for safer conditions, notably in loft factories such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
But in early in 1911, the Manufacturers' Association down on Wall Street battled against his emergency fire protection rules for factories that he had laid down. They called on their connections to Tammany Hall to thwart Chief Croker.
My great grandfather, Thomas F. Dougherty, also fought for safer conditions for most of his 46-year career in which he was assistant chief and then acting chief of the New York City Fire Dept. and fought most of New York City's most famous fires, including the Sherry Netherland blaze of 1927.
He invented a variety of life-saving devices, including nozzles fitted to hoses to enable firemen to pour water into inaccessible nooks and crannies stricken by fire, including under rooftops, into cellars and notably under the many docks and piers aligning New York City. He invented the duplex nozzle, doubling a hose's water output, and also devised a pump that sucked smoke out of burning buildings, to save more lives.
Dougherty also invented a life net built of poles, canvas and ropes, when hook and ladder trucks were not available, to rescue desperate people at stories in buildings high above the ground.
Dougherty carried these devices in his truck. And he improved ventilation systems to stop future fires.
"Brained With a Baseball Bat"
Although he could have patented his devices, earning royalties, Dougherty instead gave them to the New York City Fire Department, a department he so loved and wanted to join that, during the Great Blizzard of 1888, too short to pass the height exam at five feet six inches, “he beat himself on the head with a barrel stave to raise a welt that would bring him up to the requisite 5 feet 7 inches,” reads his obituary in the New York Herald Tribune.
“His brother brained him with a baseball bat,” my grandmother would say.
Dean of the Fire College for 21 years, Dougherty also ran the Fire Battalion for the 1939 World’s Fair. Dougherty’s New York Times obituary from July 19, 1943, also notes that he wrote without remuneration 14 fire-fighting pamphlets distributed nationwide, co-authored with fire expert Paul Kearney several articles for the Saturday Evening Post and in 1931 co-wrote a book entitled “Fire,” on how to prevent fires.
"Fire Escapes Can Kill You"
In his book, published the year his granddaughter, my mother, was born, Dougherty warned that fire escapes can still kill you, because they peel away from buildings and turn blazingly red hot, burning victims. (By the time of publication of his book, Dougherty's son Austin, my mother's father, had already died from complications due to being hit with mustard gas by the German Army in World War I. The Great Depression was underway, and my grandmother was pregnant with my aunt Austine when my mother, Regina, was one years old).
Which is why then-Fire Chief Croker said that even if the workers had reached the lone fire escape, they would still have perished.
Award-winning Actress Tovah Feldsuh Speaks
The award winning movie and theater actress, as well as philanthropist Tovah Feldsuh (recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanities Award and the Israel Peace Medal, among others), has narrated an HBO documentary "Triangle. Remembering the Fire," which brings to life the dreadful and infuriating events of this tragedy.
Feldsuh, who has won a string of Tony Awards, Emmy Awards, and Drama Desk awards, spoke with me about the movie, and how her personal family history poignantly, and strikingly, interconnects not only with the anniversary of this event, but with garment workers:
"I was honored to participate in the 100th commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in any way I could, because but three weeks after the Triangle tragedy, my beloved mother, Lillian Kaplan Feldsuh, was born on a dining room table at 1534 Charlotte Street in the Bronx."
"Lily will live, please God, to see her 100th birthday this April 18th. Her mother, Ada, couldn't go to her job as a garment worker in a midtown Manhattan factory that March of 1911, because she was already in her ninth month."
"I saw Ada's Ellis Island records marking her immigration into America in 1903 from England--under religion it said HEBREW, under profession it said TAILORESS. Ada worked as a Hebrew Tailoress and would live a full life. Her daughter, Lillian, my mother, is now completing a century of life. Their luck did not run out as it did for the girls in the Triangle factory fire."
Feldsuh continues: "I leave you with a quote from George Bernard Shaw that serves as a reminder to all of us who employ or are employed:
"'I am of the opinion that our lives belong to the community, and that as long as we shall live, it is our privilege to do for it whatever we can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the longer I live. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a splendid torch that I've got hold of for one moment in time and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible here, before handing it on to future generations.'"
List of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Victims
The list of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire victims comes courtesy of Cornell University:
• Adler, Lizzie, 24
• Altman, Anna, 16
• Ardito, Annina, 25
• Bassino, Rose, 31
• Benanti, Vincenza, 22
• Berger, Yetta, 18
• Bernstein, Essie, 19
• Bernstein, Jacob, 38
• Bernstein, Morris, 19
• Bierman, Gussie, 22
• Billota, Vincenza, 16
• Binowitz, Abraham, 30
• Brenman, Rosie, 23
• Brenman, Sarah, 17
• Brodsky, Ida, 15
• Brodsky, Sarah, 21
• Brooks, Ada, 18
• Brunetti, Laura, 17
• Cammarata, Josephine, 17
• Caputo, Francesca, 17
• Carlisi, Josephine, 31
• Caruso, Albina, 20
• Ciminello, Annie, 36
• Cirrito, Rosina, 18
• Cohen, Anna, 25
• Colletti, Annie, 30
• Cooper, Sarah, 16
• Cordiano , Michelina, 25
• Dashefsky, Bessie, 25
• Del Castillo, Josie, 21
• Dockman, Clara, 19
• Donick, Kalman, 24
• Eisenberg, Celia, 17
• Evans, Dora, 18
• Feibisch, Rebecca, 20
• Fichtenholtz, Yetta, 18
• Fitze, Daisy Lopez, 26
• Floresta, Mary, 26
• Florin, Max, 23
• Franco, Jenne, 16
• Friedman, Rose, 18
• Gerjuoy, Diana, 18
• Gerstein, Molly, 17
• Giannattasio, Catherine, 22
• Gitlin, Celia, 17
• Goldstein, Esther, 20
• Goldstein, Lena, 22
• Goldstein, Mary, 18
• Goldstein, Yetta, 20
• Grasso, Rosie, 16
• Greb, Bertha, 25
• Grossman, Rachel, 18
• Herman, Mary, 40
• Hochfeld, Esther, 21
• Hollander, Fannie, 18
• Horowitz, Pauline, 19
• Jukofsky, Ida, 19
• Kanowitz, Ida, 18
• Kaplan, Tessie, 18
• Kessler, Beckie, 19
• Klein, Jacob, 23
• Koppelman, Beckie, 16
• Kula, Bertha, 19
• Kupferschmidt, Tillie, 16
• Kurtz, Benjamin, 19
• L'Abbate, Annie, 16
• Lansner, Fannie, 21
• Lauletti, Maria Giuseppa, 33
• Lederman, Jennie, 21
• Lehrer, Max, 18
• Lehrer, Sam, 19
• Leone, Kate, 14
• Leventhal, Mary, 22
• Levin, Jennie, 19
• Levine, Pauline, 19
• Liebowitz, Nettie, 23
• Liermark, Rose, 19
• Maiale, Bettina, 18
• Maiale, Frances, 21
• Maltese, Catherine, 39
• Maltese, Lucia, 20
• Maltese, Rosaria, 14
• Manaria, Maria, 27
• Mankofsky, Rose, 22
• Mehl, Rose, 15
• Meyers, Yetta, 19
• Midolo, Gaetana, 16
• Miller, Annie, 16
• Neubauer, Beckie, 19
• Nicholas, Annie, 18
• Nicolosi, Michelina, 21
• Nussbaum, Sadie, 18
• Oberstein, Julia, 19
• Oringer, Rose, 19
• Ostrovsky , Beckie, 20
• Pack, Annie, 18
• Panno, Provindenza, 43
• Pasqualicchio, Antonietta, 16
• Pearl, Ida, 20
• Pildescu, Jennie, 18
• Pinelli, Vincenza, 30
• Prato, Emilia, 21
• Prestifilippo, Concetta, 22
• Reines, Beckie, 18
• Rosen (Loeb), Louis, 33
• Rosen, Fannie, 21
• Rosen, Israel, 17
• Rosen, Julia, 35
• Rosenbaum, Yetta, 22
• Rosenberg, Jennie, 21
• Rosenfeld, Gussie, 22
• Rosenthal, Nettie, 21
• Rothstein, Emma, 22
• Rotner, Theodore, 22
• Sabasowitz, Sarah, 17
• Salemi, Santina, 24
• Saracino, Sarafina, 25
• Saracino, Teresina, 20
• Schiffman, Gussie, 18
• Schmidt, Theresa, 32
• Schneider, Ethel, 20
• Schochet, Violet, 21
• Schpunt, Golda, 19
• Schwartz, Margaret, 24
• Seltzer, Jacob, 33
• Shapiro, Rosie, 17
• Sklover, Ben, 25
• Sorkin, Rose, 18
• Starr, Annie, 30
• Stein, Jennie, 18
• Stellino, Jennie, 16
• Stiglitz, Jennie, 22
• Taback, Sam, 20
• Terranova, Clotilde, 22
• Tortorelli, Isabella, 17
• Utal, Meyer, 23
• Uzzo, Catherine, 22
• Velakofsky, Frieda, 20
• Viviano, Bessie, 15
• Weiner, Rosie, 20
• Weintraub, Sarah, 17
• Weisner, Tessie, 21
• Welfowitz, Dora, 21
• Wendorff, Bertha, 18
• Wilson, Joseph, 22
• Wisotsky, Sonia, 17