Today, most people go to work with little thought of the dangers hidden around them in their workplaces. Their safety is taken for granted. It was the same 100 years ago. We, unfortunately, have not learned the lessons so painfully taught us in the past. Saturday, March 25, 1911...
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Today, most people go to work with little thought of the dangers hidden around them in their workplaces. Their safety is taken for granted. It was the same 100 years ago. We, unfortunately, have not learned the lessons so painfully taught us in the past.
Saturday, March 25, 1911, was a warm, spring day. That afternoon, on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors of the 10-story Asch Building at 23–29 Washington Place (also known as 245 Greene St.), 575 workers were finishing a seven-hour overtime shift at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. It was about 10 minutes before the 4:45 closing bell when a carelessly discarded match or cigarette ignited a huge pile of scraps beneath a cutting table on the eighth floor. The table itself, also piled high with combustible fabric, was soon burning briskly. Tissue-paper sewing patterns suspended from clotheslines above the tables burst into flames, spreading the fire across the room.
Several employees splashed buckets of water toward the flames with little effect. Most of the 225 employees on the fire floor did, however, have ample warning of the growing fire and escaped the flames. Fifty cutters immediately headed down the Greene Street stairway upon hearing the first shouts of "Fire!" Most of the women pressed toward the narrow exit on the Washington Place side and found the door locked. After several frantic moments, a man broke the lock and the women squeezed through and descended in single file until the lead girl fainted, blocking the stairs. Behind her on the eighth floor, heat, smoke and flames pressed down on the trapped workers. Several panic-stricken young women who were cut off and unable to reach the small elevator or the crowded stairs were driven to the windows.
A Wave of Fire Overhead
Above their heads, sheets of flames pulsed out the eighth-floor windows and into the open windows on the ninth and 10th floors, igniting the extremely flammable fabrics and cuttings on each floor. The first warning of fire the 300 workers on the ninth floor had was the wave of fire suddenly pouring over their heads. A mad scramble ensued as each one tried to squeeze through the 20-inch opening that led to the Greene Street stairway. Others frantically made their way to a single small fire escape that was soon overcrowded.
On the street outside, a passerby, John Mooney, saw smoke issuing from the eighth-floor windows and hurried to the corner fire alarm box. At 4:45 P.M., Box 289 was pulled, transmitting the signal to the Manhattan Fire Alarm Office. Fireman Daniel Donahue, chief dispatcher that afternoon, noted that 20 or 30 seconds later, the alarm office's switchboard lit up with telephone calls and the repeated pulls of the factory's private alarms. Dispatchers transmitted the alarm and within a half-minute, despite the fact another fire was being dealt with in the area, eight FDNY units were responding to the call.
As Engine 72 swung west onto Washington Place, firemen clinging to the sides of the rig saw flames pouring from every window on the eighth floor while a steady stream of workers fled onto the street through the building's front entrances. As Engine 72's team of horses slowed, four firemen jumped from the rig with lengths of rolled-up hose over their shoulders and hurried toward the fire building. Several of their comrades immediately stretched lines from a nearby high-pressure fire hydrant to the Asch Building's standpipe siamese. (Engine 72, located at 22 East 12th St., was a two-piece high-pressure company. The first piece was a 1909 Knox high-pressure hose wagon, the department's first motorized firefighting apparatus placed in service two years earlier. The second piece was a horse-drawn high-pressure hose wagon.) Arriving simultaneously was Engine 33 from its quarters on Great Jones Street, followed closely by Engine 18.