In lower Manhattan stands a light terracotta building on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. The building is a part of New York University, and students have no idea that they are usually looking down to where dozens of women and girls leaped to their death nearly a century ago to avoid being burned alive.
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, just after the bell rang to say that the workday was over, the girls working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company began to gather up their belongings and put on their coats. The clothing shops on the lower floors of the building had closed down at noon, but the girls working on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors were sewing women's tailored shirts for overtime. Working for Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the girls normally made $6 a week, so the overtime pay would come in handy, who were mostly German, Italian, and Yiddish immigrants.
There was a sudden running around and the message was clear, 'fire'. People on the street below noticed smoke from the 8th floor. They witnessed a ream of cloth come barreling out the window and smack onto the sidewalk. They commented wryly that Harris must be trying to save his best clothes and so he was throwing the rest out the window. People on the street began to gather, looking upward, and another bolt of cloth flew out and down. But suddenly they realized with horror that the projectiles weren't bolts of cloth―they were human bodies.
The fire department, only six blocks away on 12th Street, had immediately sent out an engine. But the firemen had trouble maneuvering the fire hose wagon into the best position because there were six bodies lying and they couldn't run over them. And more bodies were still dropping. Distraught firemen set up a lifesaving net and tried to catch one falling girl, but when they were spotted, three more girls launched themselves into the net, causing all four to bounce out of it and hit the concrete. A fireman and a policeman held the ends of a horse blanket to try to catch the next falling girl, but the blanket split in half as the body plummeted right through and hit the sidewalk.
Inside the building, the fire moved rapidly across huge hallways and on the cotton fabric, and then ate its way up to the clothing hanging overhead. The fire raced out of control, with the male tailors and the foreman trying unsuccessfully to keep the flames under control, but there were only 27 water buckets available, which wasn't nearly enough water. The 275 girls trapped by the fire were panicked and desperate, and they began to race for the two elevators and the stairway located at the west end of the building. The doors in the building were designed to open in, not out, so the crush of people rushing to the door simultaneously slammed it shut.
The elevators, run by operators Joe Gaspar and Joe Zitto, held only ten people each. Gaspar and Zitto brought the cars up and down repeatedly, with girls fighting frantically to get inside. The cars brought as many girls down as possible to street level, with their clothes still smoking from the fire. Finally the stairway door upstairs was cleared, and girls began racing down the stairs to the street, most with their clothing burned from their bodies. The question now was―hundreds of girls were still trapped on the 8th floor. Three male workers formed a human chain reaching from the 8th floor of the Shirtwaist Company to the window of the adjacent building. Some girls made it across to the other building by crawling over the backs of the three men. But when one of the men lost his balance, the human chain broke, sending all the men falling down to die on the sidewalk below.
Another fire engine arrived, but the water from their hoses would reach only as far as the 7th floor, not even touching the flames on the floor above. To add to the horror, their ladders would reach only as high as the 7th floor, causing girls to leap out windows, sometimes four or five at a time, to catch the top of the ladders. Each one of them missed, and fell 80 feet to the concrete. Thousands of spectators had gathered behind the police lines, horrified at what they were witnessing.
Workers on the 10th floor, who had originally thought the fire alarm was a prank, realized they could not go down, so they climbed up to the roof. Students at the New York University Law School, next door, lowered a ladder down to the girls so they could climb about 12 feet up to safety. Almost 150 girls were saved by climbing up to the roof. But on the floors below, the flames had created an inferno in the stairway on the east side, and the doors to the stairway on the west side were locked. The only fire escape in the building was as hot as an inferno. The two elevator operators did their best to carry as many girls as possible down to safety, but as the elevators descended, they heard bodies dropping on the tops of the cars, and blood dripped down the walls.
Ambulance workers arriving from several New York hospitals were not able to save any lives; all they could do was tag the bodies of the victims, remove them from the street, and cover them with tarpaulins. Firemen were finally able to rush up the stairways and extinguish the fire, leaving the building essentially undamaged. It was built of concrete and steel, so it withstood the flames and the heat. Ambulances traveled back and forth delivering the dead bodies to the morgue.
Over the next few days, hundreds of friends and relatives of the dead descended upon the morgue to identify the people who had died in the fire. A temporary police station was opened to help assist the people, and an investigation to find out the probable reason behind this catastrophe had been initiated. Nine months later, Blanck and Harris were found not guilty of any wrongdoing by locking the doors on the west side of the building, which had been done to prevent burglary. The two owners were sued by 23 families of dead workers, and each family eventually received $75 in settlement. The state created a commission to investigate conditions in sweatshops throughout the city, which resulted in legislation to protect factory workers. A special division, Fire Prevention, was created to inspect factories for fire hazards, and instituted as part of the fire department. As a result of their policies, no doors can be locked during working hours, all doors must open outwards, sprinkler systems must be installed in buildings where more than 25 people work in upper floors, and in buildings that do not have sprinkler systems, fire drills are mandatory.
Today there is still no definitive explanation for how the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire began. The most widely held theory is that one of the male workers was smoking, and threw a match or cigarette onto the floor, which was filled with clutter and cloth scraps. But regardless of the cause of the fire, the result was horrifying because of the grave loss of life.