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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Upon reaching the roof, they found two ladders left by painters and despite the 15-foot difference between the two rooflines, they lowered ladders toward those trapped below. Several students climbed down and, despite extreme heat and blinding smoke, they assisted scores of workers to the adjoining roof. One student, Charles Kramer, found a badly burned woman unconscious on the Greene Street stairs. He patted out her smoldering clothes and dragged her across the roof and up the ladder.
In the Greene Street stairs nearing the eighth floor, Ruch and the nozzle team from Engine 18 had reached a point of decision. The slate treads of the stairs were cracking from the heated underlying iron framework and the heat in the vestibule just ahead was so extreme they couldn't stand up. The captain, knowing many people were trapped on the ninth floor above and in desperate need of rescue, realized conditions were too unstable on the eighth floor to go above without controlling the fire first. Without benefit of breathing protection, the firemen pulled their coat collars up and their helmet flaps down and inched across the scalding floor, driving their hose stream toward the flames.
It took Ruch and his men about 10 minutes of extreme punishment to extinguish the flames on the eighth floor. Relaxing exhausted muscles and heat-punished lungs, the nozzle teams paused as the smoke and steam around them slowly lifted. Other hose teams pressed up the heat-filled stairways and extinguished two blazing floors above. They too sat back on their heels and tried to find some oxygen in the smoke-filled atmosphere.
The True Horror Is Revealed
The clearing smoke revealed the true horror of what had happened.
One hundred forty-six people were dead, 123 of them women. A total of 41 people had made the fatal decision to jump from the upper floors. On the ninth floor, firemen found the bodies of 50 people piled five deep in a coatroom; 20 more were on the floor between the long worktables. The physically exhausted firemen were now faced with the psychological burden of the overwhelming number of dead they had to remove from the smoldering remains of the factory.
Outside in the streets, frantic family members struggled with police and firemen, hoping to enter the fire building to find their loved ones. Firemen then set about the grim task of removing each victim for transport to an improvised morgue set up on at the Charities Pier at East 26th St. At this pier, known as Misery Lane since the General Slocum fire, fire victims were arranged in rows for identification in the very same wooden coffins that had been used for the victims of the Slocum disaster seven years earlier. (An estimated 1,021 people were killed when the passenger ship General Slocum caught fire in the East River and burned to the waterline in 1904; see "The General Slocum Disaster" by Paul Hashagen, Firehouse®, June 2004).
New Yorkers poured out to attend the funerals of the fire victims, including a large ceremony for those unidentified where hundreds of thousands jammed the funeral route despite a steady rain. Public outcry, fanned by many of the city's newspapers, continued. Membership swelled in the International Ladies' Garment Worker's Union, a group formed to promote safer working conditions in the sweatshops.
Reaction to the Triangle fire was strong and the government began investigations followed by strong legislation to reform working conditions. Factory owners Max Blanck and Issac Harris were tried for manslaughter for work conditions and having the exits locked, preventing people from escaping the fire. They were acquitted and had to escape an angry mob outside the courthouse. They later had their lawyer file insurance claims and were awarded $60,000 above the documented losses.
The Factory Investigation Committee, headed by Alfred E. Smith (later elected governor of New York and a presidential candidate in 1928) and Robert F. Wagner (later elected U.S. senator) and with such notable members as Frances Perkins (an eyewitness to the fire and later the first woman to serve as a presidential cabinet member as secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt) conducted statewide hearings that resulted in the passage of important factory safety legislation.
PAUL HASHAGEN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired FDNY firefighter who was assigned to Rescue 1 in Manhattan. He is also an ex-chief of the Freeport, NY, Fire Department. Hashagen is the author of FDNY: The Bravest, An Illustrated History 1865–2002, the official history of the New York City Fire Department, and other fire service books. His latest novel, Fire of God, is available at dmcfirebooks.com.