Learning from Tragedy

Feb. 26, 2011
Paul Hashagen explains why we have not learned the lessons so painfully taught in the past.

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.

"People Were Jumping"

After a quick two-minute response from his quarters on Mercer Street, Battalion Chief Edward Worth was on scene and assumed command.

"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.

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.

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