Today we travel to New York in 1911.
Listen to the noise of commerce in several languages. See the mixture of horse drawn and motorized vehicles clogging the streets. Smell the activity – ships bringing immigrants, factories sending smoke into the air.
The Asch Building, ten stories high, occupies the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. On this March Saturday afternoon the workers at the Triangle Waist Factory (aka: Triangle Shirtwaist) are gathering their personal articles and paychecks, finished for the week and looking forward to their one day a week of leisure.
A fire begins in a bin of scraps on the eighth floor. And then everything goes horribly wrong. No audible alarm in the building – a phone call notifies the tenth floor but not the ninth. On site fire hoses lack water pressure. Elevator operators risk everything to make multiple trips with twice the number of allotted passengers per time. Doors to the stairway are locked. The exterior fire escape collapses under heat and weight. Fire department ladders only reach to the sixth floor.
One hundred and forty six workers died — several of them jumped to their death from the eighth and ninth floors when trapped by the flames. The owners and several others on the tenth floor escaped to the roof.
In December 1911 the owners were found not guilty of first and second degree manslaughter. Insurance paid the owners and they were forced by a civil suit to pay small damages to the victim’s families. Their behavior did not change. In 1913 one of the owners was fined $20 for locking the exit door in his factory. Fire, safety, and building codes were strengthened in New York and other cities. Union organizers spoke of the tragedy when urging reforms in labor laws.
Do you think this could happen again? Did you check the fire exit map during your most recent hotel stay? Block or prop a door at your workplace?