Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911

America on Strike

By Richard E. Noble

The shirtwaist industry had been notorious for abusive safety and labor practices for some time. In fact there was a massive general strike in 1909 called the Uprising of 20,000. After the four month strike the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory refused to sign the agreement. There were general strikes not only in New York but also in Philadelphia and Chicago. The Needles Industries, as they were called, were just another example of everything bad about 20th century American Industry.
There were inadequate toilet facilities, the floors in the work areas were littered with cloth, fabric and scrap material, smoking was not prohibited, the fire escapes were unsafe and inadequate if they existed at all and the illumination was by open gas lighting.
In 1909 a fire prevention expert had written to the factory management at the Triangle plant about their poor fire safety practices and how they could be improved. His letter was ignored. The building was approved time after time by the city fire inspectors.
The Triangle plant was no different than hundreds of others in the industry. Safety practices throughout the industry were relatively non-existent. The only fire safety measure at the Triangle plant at the time of the fire were 27 buckets of water scattered here and there. Most of the doors were locked to prevent employee theft. The employees were searched each night as they left the building in single file. Those doors that weren't locked, opened inward. Nineteen burnt and charred bodies were found stacked against these doors after the fire.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York on March 25, 1911 was the largest industrial disaster to that date in that city. It was the worst workplace disaster in that city's history prior to September 11, 2001.
The fire started on the 8th floor. For some reason the 9th floor was the last to be made aware that a fire had broken out. Most workers on the 8th and 10th floor managed to escape. The 9th floor had only 2 exit doors. One of these doors was locked. One hundred and forty-eight workers were either burnt to death in the fire or leaped from the ninth floor windows or down the elevator shaft to avoid that type fate. The majority were girls between the ages of 13 and 23. The girls worked 14 hour shifts and a 60 to 72 hour work week. On the average they earned between $6 and $7 dollars per week.
The ladders on the fire trucks only reached the 6th and 7th floors. Their hoses could only spray to the 7th floor. The factory was on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of what was called the Asch (also Brown) building. The building was on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in New York City. It was owned by Max Blank and Isaac Harris. The two owners were in the building at the time of the fire. They had escaped to the roof and survived. The factory employed approximately 500 workers. The majority were Jewish or Italian women and girls.
The sidewalks around the base of the building were littered with the dead bodies of the young girls who had leaped to their death. The 62 bodies landed with an unforgettable thud. Firemen from Companies 72 and 33 were the first to arrive on the scene. Some firemen tried to catch the girls with blankets and nets, but the falling girls ripped through to their deaths. Some of them leaped from the 9th floor to try and grab onto the ladders topping at the 7th floor. None were successful and they all fell to their deaths.
As in all tragedies there were numerous acts of bravery. Joe Zitto and Joe Gaspar, the two elevator operators, were able to get their elevators back to the 8th floor 15 and 20 times and rescue many of the panicking young women. Three other male workers formed a living bridge between two windows. Many women were able to crawl along their backs to safety until the three men lost their grip and fell to their deaths.
It is said that this terrible tragedy set the way for workplace safety laws of the future. The Factory Commission of 1911 was set up with Senator Robert F. Wagner, Alfred E. Smith and Samuel Gompers as appointments. One of the important accomplishments of this Commission was a Fire Prevention division as part of the fire department. Traditionally government had shied away from making any kind of regulations on business, but after this horror it was mandatory.
Frances Perkins, FDR's future Secretary of Labor, had witnessed the horror from the street that day. She became a champion on behalf of labor safety and worker compensation laws. Factories were required to have all doors open outward; no doors could be locked during business hours; sprinkler systems would be required on all factories employing more than 25 people above ground level.
The two owners Max Blank and Issac Harris were brought to trial for manslaughter. The slaughter was decided to be "an act of God" as opposed to a tragedy of neglect or abuse. In effect, how could these two men be convicted without convicting the whole system. Of all the many people who could have been held culpable only these two owners were brought to trial. Their lawyer Max Steuer managed to destroy the prosecution's witnesses by demonstrating that they had been coached and that their statements had been memorized. One witness, Kate Alterman, was made to repeat her testimony a number of times. She repeated a number of key phrases over and over. The jury became skeptical.
Judge Crain had also charged the jury with defined guidelines. Since the owners were being charged with a felony, it was required that the jury find that the door had been locked and that it had been locked with the defendants' personal knowledge.
Jurors like Victor Steinman found this troubling. How could they be certain that the owners were personally aware that the door had been locked? And even though the door had been locked, a key on a string was supposedly left for it to be opened when necessary or approved. Could one of the girls have locked the door by mistake or knocked the key out of the door in her frantic rush to escape?
One hundred and forty-eight girls and young women were dead and it was nobody's fault. No one was punished. A subsequent civil suit took place in 1913 and the plaintiffs won a reward of $75 for each of the deceased victims.