I’m working on my next Aggie and Abe historical fiction, time travel novel. This one will focus on the struggles of women garment workers in New York City in the early 1900s. One important event in this history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, occurred on March 25, 1911.
The fire took the lives of 146 workers, most of them young women immigrants. It was one of the worst workplace disasters in U.S. history. The Triangle factory made “shirtwaists” (blouses) and was located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the ten-story Asch Building. The building still stands. It is now owned by NYU and is called the Brown Building.
The fire occurred on a Saturday, right before the 4:45 P.M. closing time. It began on the 8th floor and quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floors. Escape routes were few. Some workers jumped to their deaths in front of horrified onlookers.
Why was the fire so deadly? Many know about a locked door that prevented some workers from escaping. But there are dozens of additional reasons, each contributing to the death toll. Here are a few:
- Each floor of the factory was about 10,000 square feet of space. There were only two exit doors on each floor.
- On the 8th and 9th floors, one of the two exit doors was routinely kept locked. At closing time, workers were required to line up at the single unlocked door. The handbags of women workers were inspected to make sure they were not stealing thread, fabric, or a bit of lace.
- When the fire started, a key was found to open the locked 8th floor door. The locked 9th floor door stayed locked, trapping many workers.
- On the 8th floor, a wooden partition created a narrow corridor to the unlocked door making access difficult.
- The exit doors swung inward to the room, not outward to the stairs. This was necessary because the staircases were so narrow. They spiraled around a narrow shaft, and there was no room for a door to open onto a landing.
- There were only two staircases in the Asch Building, although the NYC Department of Buildings said there should have been three. The developer’s architect argued that since there was a fire escape, it was “practically” another staircase.
- The staircase steps were not wide enough for multiple people to go up or down abreast.
- One of the two staircases ended at the 10th floor and did not lead all the way up to the roof.
- A container of oil was stored near one of the staircases. It is thought to have exploded in the fire, making access to that staircase nearly impossible.
- The fire escape that the architect had argued was “practically” another staircase ended at the second story above a skylight that provided light to a basement.
- The courtyard at the bottom of the fire escape was surrounded by buildings. There was no pathway or other exit to the streets. It was essentially an airshaft providing no way out.
- To get to the roof from the top of the fire escape, those fleeing the fire had to climb a very tall, thin “gooseneck” ladder attached to the side of the building.
- The fire escape stairs leading to each level were extremely narrow, approximately 18 inches wide.
- To exit onto the fire escape, heavy metal shutters needed to be swung open and secured against the outer wall of the building. If one of these shutters was not secured properly, it could swing open, get stuck, and effectively block the passageway.
- The fire escape was shoddily constructed and unable to bear the weight of dozens of people. During the fire it collapsed, sending many workers to their death.
- The two passenger elevators that were operating on the day of the fire were small, less than 5 feet by 6 feet, and designed to hold about 15 people. Approximately 500 people were working at the factory on the day of the fire.
- The arrangement of furniture on the 8th and 9th floors made movement and exiting difficult. Long tables, some more that 65 feet long, were set in rows with an exit at only one end of the aisle.
- The materials worked with—cotton, linen, and other lightweight fabrics—were highly flammable.
- The cutter’s tables were boarded off at the bottom to create scrap bins. As the workday progressed, these under-the-table bins would fill with highly flammable scraps.
- Other flammable materials were present. Wicker baskets for scraps were under the tables that held the sewing machines. Paper patterns were hung above the cutters’ tables.
- Although fire sprinklers had been invented, they were not installed at the Triangle Factory.
- The phone system required routing through a switchboard. When the fire started on the 8th floor, the administrative offices on the 10th floor were alerted, but the 9th floor was never called.
- Workers sometimes disobeyed the No Smoking signs. It is believed the fire started when a cigarette butt was discarded in a scrap bin under a cutter’s table.
- Fire drills had never been held.
- The fire wagon’s ladders only extended as high as the 6th floor. The fire was on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors.
The fire led to popular support for changes to unsafe working conditions. One of the witnesses to the fire was Frances Perkins, who would become FDR’s Secretary of Labor, the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet position.
As a writer of historical fiction, I rely on historians who study and report on events from the past. Two excellent resources on the Triangle fire are Leon Stein’s classic, The Triangle Fire and David Von Drehle’s excellent and compelling book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.