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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"As I turned the corner at Fourth and Green…I saw that the fire was already in possession of the eighth floor…Nobody showed at the windows of that floor," Worth said. "From the ninth floor, people were jumping. Engine Company 33 and High Pressure No. 72 had preceded me and were getting into action when I arrived. The men from the engine company were attaching hose to the standpipes, and the men from the high pressure were assisting them. Lines of hose were taken upstairs as fast as they could be."
Sizing up the dangerous fire situation, Worth transmitted second and third alarms at 4:48.
Arriving from the west, Captain Howard Ruch of Engine 18 ordered a line stretched from a hydrant at Waverly Place and Greene Street, a half-block north of the fire building, to the Greene Street standpipe connection. Ruch's attention was drawn above where flames were leaping from the eighth floor and driving into the ninth and 10th floors. The captain also saw workers gathering at the windows above on the ninth floor crying for help. With loud shrieks, they began to jump.
Worth directed the operator of one of Engine 72's high-pressure wagons to direct his stream onto the facade above the ninth-floor windows to provide a curtain of cooling water in an attempt to relieve the tremendous heat those trapped at the windows were enduring.
"We hoped it would cool off the building close to them and reassure them," Worth said. "It was the only reassurance we could give them."
But still they kept jumping.
Life Nets Ineffective
Despite the fact firemen knew their nets would be ineffective due to the height of those trapped above, they had little choice but to try. Knowing the longest of the aerial ladders was too short, they opened their canvas life nets and tried their best. Ruch and his men opened a brand-new net at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place.
"The first person to jump was a man, then three girls came together," Ruch said. "There were firemen and civilians holding the net, but we all toppled over together on top of the victims. Before we regained our feet, the bodies were coming so fast it was impossible to catch them."
In the streets and sidewalks surrounding the fire building, crowds of spectators numbering in the thousands pressed forward, drawn to the scene. Screaming in horror, they watched girl after girl take their places on the window ledge before stepping off into eternity.
Jumpers were coming down in bunches, overwhelming the under-equipped net holders.
"The little ones went through the life nets, pavement and all," Worth said. "The nets are good for the low tenements, but nobody could hold life nets when those girls from the ninth floor came down." The chief then ordered the nets abandoned, fearing the firemen would be killed by the falling bodies.
On the turntable of Ladder 20's rig firemen cranked the gears, frantically raising the wooden aerial toward the victims — but even fully extended it stopped 30 feet short. Abandoning the nets, firemen scrambled to bring scaling ladders to the aerial ladder, but the jumpers just kept coming. The street outside the fire building was an extremely dangerous place to be — but nothing compared to the top three floors.
Two of the building employees, elevator operators Gaspar Mortillalo and Joseph Zito, were answering the frantic bells from the fire floors and made repeated trips past the blazing eighth floor, rescuing as many people as they could jam into the small cars. While unloading passengers below, Zito realized just how bad things were when people starting jumping into the elevator shaft.
"The screams from above were getting worse," Zito said. "I looked up and saw the whole shaft red with fire…It was horrible. They kept coming down from the flaming floors above. Some of their clothing was burning as they fell. I could see streaks of fire coming down like rockets."
Some of the lucky workers made their way to the roof of the blazing building and waited frantically for firemen to reach them. Their luck was holding — but it would be some very unlikely heroes that would save them.
Students to the Rescue
On the 10th floor of a neighboring building, 50 students were assembled for a lecture by the popular law professor Frank Sommer. A former sheriff, Sommer was speaking to his students when the sound of approaching fire trucks filled his room. The professor stopped his speech and excused himself for a moment. Moving to a window, he was startled to see flames shooting up the side of the Asch Building. He returned to his students and ordered them to the roof.