One of the greatest industrial tragedies in U.S. history occurred on March 25, 1911, when 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist company in New York City. The victims had been trapped by blocked exit doors and faulty fire escapes. One of the worst industrial fires in U.S. history, the Triangle fire became a galvanizing symbol of industrial capitalism’s excesses and the pressing need for reform. In its aftermath, a coalition of middle-class reformers and working people secured passage of landmark occupational health and safety laws. The Triangle fire received sensational coverage in all the New York newspapers. This article from the Jewish Daily Forward, printed the day after the fire, emphasized the tragic loss to the Jewish community.
THE MORGUE IS FULL OF OUR VICTIMS!
175 WORKERS LOSE THEIR LIVES IN A BURNING SHIRT-WAIST FACTORY.
The Top Three Floors of a 10-Story Building on Washington Square Where the Triangle Waist Co. Has Its Shops, Destroyed By Flames.
Firemen’s Ladders Cannot Reach the Unfortunate Workers Standing by the Windows Trying to Save Themselves.
Many Hold onto the Windows and Must Let Go as the Fire Reaches Their Hands, and They Fall from the Heights to Their Deaths.
141 Dead in Morgue—56 Bodies Not Recognizable—Mothers and Relatives Weep and Wail in the Blocks Around the Tragic Site.
THE ENTIRE JEWISH QUARTER IN MOURNING.
One hundred and seventy-five workers—men, women and children—perished yesterday in a fire that broke out at 33 Washington Square. Many were burnt in the fire, and many fell down from the windows. The fire broke out at 5:30 in the evening, just after the bell rang for the workers to stop work. The building is 10 stories high. The top 3 stories are used by the “Triangle Waist Company” and the fire started in that factory.
The flames spread very fast. A storm of fire tore through the elevators and stairs to the floors above. In an instant fire appeared at all the windows, and tongues of flame crept along the walls, higher and higher to where knots of horrified girls—workers—stood in despair.
The fire became stronger, more terrible, bigger. The workers on the top floors cannot bear the heat, and one after another they jump down from the 8th, 9th and 10th floors, to the sidewalk where they lay, dead.
And when there was already a mountain of dead bodies, the first fire engine showed up.
Helplessly, the firemen began battling the fire. Their ladders only reached to the 7th story. The firemen stood at a loss, and watched as one woman after another fell from above like shot birds, from the burning floors.
The first to jump were the women. Men bore it longer, surrounded by flames. And when they could stand it no more, they followed the example of the women, and also jumped.
Below stood thousands of workers from other factories, crying and grieving. Unforgettably touching scenes could be witnessed from below. On the 8th floor appeared a couple, and young man and woman. He holds her hand tightly. Behind them is the red fire. The young man presses her tenderly to his breast, gives her a kiss on the lips, and lets her down. She gives a jump—she hits the sidewalk hard. In the next moment he jumps down. And his body falls hard beside hers, also dead.
And above the fire rages on. Along with the fire, a cloud of smoke enveloped the top floors. A wind momentarily blew the smoke and flames aside, and one could see masses of despairing people, still-living people. . . .
The flames very quickly engulfed the stairs and filled the elevator shafts. One elevator fell down with a crash. The other three elevators were twice able to travel up, and carry down about a hundred girls. Fearfully, they risked using the elevator a third time. The hundred girls cried and waited, and instead of seeing the elevator, they saw the flames coming closer and closer. They realized that no help could reach them there, and they set out for the roof, the fire escapes and the windows.
And then there was a terrible crash. The 7th floor had fallen in. Dozens of girls who were standing near the elevator shaft were flung into the sea of flames that raged in there. Later, their bodies were found one atop another in a big heap.
It was an hour before the firemen could get into the burning area, and by then everything was over. The sidewalks were covered with the dead and wounded. No one could be seen at the windows. The unfortunate girls who had been waiting in that area lay everywhere, burnt or suffocated by smoke and fire.
By then the street was full of policemen, firemen, doctors and police. Inspector Harley called out all reserve policemen from all station houses between 42nd Street and the Battery, and all ambulances from all the hospitals in the quadrant. Special police ran around to all private doctors in neighboring streets and ordered them to go to the site of the tragedy.
They began to send the dead to the station houses and the wounded to the hospitals. But there were not sufficient ambulances or patrol-wagons. The neighborhood grocers, butchers and peddlers lent their delivery vans and pushcarts. Dozens of local stores were turned into morgues and hospitals.
Five minutes after the fire broke out, there were already the bodies of more than 30 girls lying on the sidewalk and street. The few firemen who were then on the scene had no time to deal with them. They tried to save the living and to extinguish the flames. One policeman later related that he himself had seen 45 girls jump from the windows.
The flames spread so fast, that those who remained in the area for twenty minutes must have been burnt or suffocated. And those who escaped the flames and smoke were later drowned by the huge streams of water poured into the area by the fire engines.
The crowd of people that collected around the fire was the largest ever seen in New York. In the streets around the scene, all wagons and cars were stopped.
The dead bodies were first taken to the Mercer Street station house. Hundreds of people ran after ambulances and patrol wagons: friends, relatives and acquaintances of the unfortunate ones, weeping terribly. A large number of police had to be called out to hold back the mighty press of people from the station house.
Later, Deputy Police Commissioner Driscol ordered the dead bodies to be taken to the morgue, and that 75 coffins be given out.
The Chief of the fire department Crocker stated that the number of dead would reach over one hundred. Thirty-five perished by jumping from the windows, more that 60 were burnt in the factory area, and 20-some were suffocated and drowned in the elevator shafts.
The fire also destroyed the lower floors where a cloak shop was located, but no one there was injured because the cloak shop works only until 12 o’clock on the Sabbath. That is the law of their union.
[An eyewitness speaks:]
"When I was running towards it, the top three floors were already engulfed in flames. On the sidewalks and the street were lying girls, dead, their clothes burned off them. Burning bodies were flying through the air. I was speechless from horror.
"The firemen were running back and forth, wringing their hands, not knowing what to do first. I saw that people were running with pails of water, pouring it on the burning bodies, and so I started to help too.
"A girl was lying not far from me. And she was burning like a candle. I ripped the burning things from her and put out the flames with my hands and feet. Then I noticed that her limbs were moving. I took her by the hand. She trembled, and a shudder ran through me.
"With the help of another man, we carried the girl to an ambulance. The doctor looked at her for just a couple of minutes, told us to lay her in the ambulance, and ordered it to the hospital. He himself went off to other victims.
"At the hospital they revived her. Her fingers were broken, and one foot was smattered into pieces. We left her there and ran back outside.
"Coming down the steps we noticed that they were bringing in another victim, a woman of about 23, with a split head. She was lying on a stretcher, in a faint. He clothes were completely covered with blood. She was 99 percent dead."
Source: The Jewish Daily Forward, 26 March 1911. Translated into English by Tina Lunson.