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The scene on March 25, 1911, was more than Coroner Holtzhauser could bear. "Only one miserable little fire escape," he told The New York Times, which described him "sobbing like a child."
What broke the veteran official's heart - and shocked the city into profound grief - was the removal of bodies from the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company at 23 Washington Place. Eight-five years later, it remains the worst factory fire in New York City history, claiming 146 factory workers, most of them young immigrant women aged 16 to 23.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company occupied the top three floors of the 10-story "fireproof" building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, today the Brown Building of New York University. It employed about 600 workers in the production of shirtwaists, a popular women's garment of the day. Just one year prior to the blaze, the Triangle had been the focus of a major strike over working conditions. And in testimony given by survivors, it was suggested that the locked doors, which prevented escape from the ninth floor, were the result of the company's endeavors to discourage tardiness and prevent further walkouts.
At about 4:40 p.m. on that Saturday, barely 25 minutes before the end of the work day, fire broke out in the southeast corner of the eighth floor, where some 200 sewers and cutters worked side by side. Almost instantly, the fire spread to rows of garments hanging in the center of the room, sending the workers into sheer panic.
Some of them were able to flee down the one internal fire escape, but that route was quickly cut off by flames which carried the blaze to the upper floors. Many workers on the top floor were able to escape onto the roof and adjoining buildings, and dozens of others were saved due to the valiant efforts of two elevator operators. Trapped by flames and locked exit doors, however, terrified workers began jumping from window ledges.
As horrified onlookers watched helpless from the street, scores of girls plummeted to their doom, some hand in hand, many with their hair and clothes ablaze. Fire trucks, whose ladders would only reach to the sixth floor, responded almost immediately but their efforts were hampered by falling bodies.
Within an hour the fire was out but the city was in shock. For days following the tragedy, more than 100,000 people lined up to view the bodies and identify the dead at Bellevue morgue.
The Triangle fire and its aftermath were followed voraciously by the national and international press. Within days, demonstrations and investigations began paving the way for tighter fire and safety regulations, as well as the enforcement of overtime and child labor laws. Though the Triangle's owners were charged with manslaughter, they were acquitted of all charges, only forced to pay $75 each to the 23 victim's families that sued them.
Eighty-five years later, the Triangle fire remains a rallying cry to union workers everywhere, and a painful reminder of the disregard for human life still prevalent in many factories.
"The Triangle Fire began to alert people to the tragic conditions of sweatshops and marked the beginning of a national effort to end sweatshops in the U.S.," says Jo-Ann Mort, director of communications for the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). "But there are still hundreds and hundreds of sweatshops in the city," she adds, "and many of them are firetraps."
In the last decade, Mort says, sweatshops in the United States have returned in force. Just this month the Times reported on a back-pay settlement for Thai and Hispanic sweatshop workers in El Monte, Calif., who had been forced to work in an barbed-wire compound $1 and hour.
Today, safety and work-related complaints in New York factories are investigated by the Apparel Industry Task Force (AITF), which reports violations to the Fire Department, the Buildings Department, and t he Federal Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA).
"The civic reaction to the Triangle fire is directly responsible for all the current regulations in work environments," says Charlie DeSiervo, supervising Labor Standards Investigator for AITF. "It received publicity in every newspaper in the nation. Yet, even today, we find factories with fire exits closed. The owners say that it's to prevent stealing. That's the same excuse the used at the Triangle."