This article is adapted from "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America," now available in paperback from Grove Press. Firehouse.com columnist Burt Clark says of "Triangle": "As a Firefighter you know what it is like to be in a fire but this book will let you know what it is like from the fire victim's point of view. Although this fire occured before any of us were riding fire trucks, the social, political, behavioral, and building conditions that led to this tragedy are still with us today."
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a pedestrian near Washington Square in Manhattan saw smoke pouring from the upper windows of a 10-story factory building. He rushed to the nearest fire alarm box-Box 289-and pulled the lever. That's how the Fire Deparment of the City of New York learned of the deadliest skyscraper blaze the city's firefighters would face until the World Trade Center catastrophe more than 90 years later.
Cover Image Courtesy David Von Drehle
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History knows it as the Triangle shirtwaist fire. It started about 4:40 p.m., just before quitting time, in a scrap bin at the Triangle Waist Company, New York's largest manufacturer of women's blouses. Occupying the top three floors of a building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, the Triangle factory was crammed with highly flammable material: cotton fabric, tissue paper, wicker work-baskets and wooden tables and chairs. The blaze spread with amazing speed throughout the eighth floor and moved up through the airshaft to consume the ninth and tenth floors as well.
Within seconds of the first alarm, dispatcher Daniel Donahue relayed the call to companies throughout lower Manhattan. At least eight horse-drawn wagons responded immediately.
Engine Co. 72 arrived first, less than two minutes after the box was pulled. Battalion Chief Edward Worth reached the scene seconds later with Engine Co. 13. Worth saw that "the fire had entire possession of the eighth floor," he later recalled, and the ninth-floor windows "were full of people." He immediately used his key to enter a second alarm on Box 289, and then ordered his men to spray a light stream of water along the building's cornice, so that it would fall gently on the trapped workers and "cool [them] off."
As this was happening, Engine Co. 18 rolled up, with Captain Howard Ruch in command. The captain also saw the workers, screaming for help. One particular cry stood out in his memory: "I heard the shriek, and saw the people start to jump." Ruch and Worth ordered firefighters to man the life nets, but the force of bodies falling from a hundred feet rendered the nets useless.
Then as now, New Yorkers took great pride in their fire department, which they boasted was the best-equipped and best-trained force in the world. Chief Edward Croker, the man in charge, was perhaps the most respected public official in the city. And the FDNY performed well that day, bringing the inferno under control within 30 minutes of the first alarm.
But their best wasn't good enough. When Hook and Ladder No. 20 reached the scene, fireman Jacob Woll Jr. quickly cranked the gears on the tallest ladder in the city. Thousands of onlookers, streaming to the the awful spectacle, watched with hope as the ladder rose. Then it stopped, fully extended, at the sixth floor, some thirty feet below the trapped workers.
The flames were so intense on the eighth floor that they drove Ruch to his belly when he reached the landing. He decided he must get that blaze under control before heading up to the trapped workers above. Otherwise, he and his men would be cut off.
The ninth-floor workers-some 250 people, mostly young women and girls-were on their own. Flames quickly blocked one stairway. A flimsy fire escape in the rear airshaft became overcrowded and collapsed. Many escaped in the passenger elevators,but those, too, were soon cut off by the fire. And the door to the second stairway, the final exit, was locked. The factory owners wanted all workers to leave through a single door, where they were searched for pilfered garments.