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No Way Out: Two New York City Firemen Testify about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

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. In this brief excerpt from their testimony before the Factory Investigation Commission, New York City Fire Chief Edward F. Croker and Fire Marshall William Beers commented on the safety lapses—the locking of an exit door, the inadequate fire escapes, and the overcrowded factory floor—that led to the deaths of the Triangle workers.

Edward F. Croker, called as a witness, being first duly sworn, testifies as follows:

Direct examination by Mr. Elkus:

Q. Chief, will you tell the Commissioners just how long you have been in the Fire Department, what positions you have held, etc., so that we may have it in on record?

A. I was appointed fireman June 22nd, 1884, and went through the various grades of the department from time to time, until I arrived at the position of Chief of the department; I served in that capacity for twelve years and retired May 1st of the present year. . .

Q. Were you present at the fire of the Triangle Waist Company building?

A. I was, sir.

Q. And you made a careful investigation of that fire, did you not?

A. Yes, sir, I did.

Q. Now, just a word about that. Was that a loft building of the kind you described?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. How many stories high?

A. Twelve stories.

Q. And this fire was on one or more floors in that building?

A. It originated on the ninth.

Q. And they had an out-door fire escape there, didn’t they?

A. On the rear.

Q. And it led down to an enclosed yard?

A. It led down into an enclosed yard.

Q. What did you ascertain were the facts there with reference to the closed doors?

A. Well, from what we could find—what was left of that place up there—I don’t think there was any doubt there was a partition inside of the doorway leading out into the Green Street side of that building, and from the indication of the number of people we found where that partition was, that door was locked, and the door that opened into it, opened on the inside.

Q. Was it locked with a lock and key, or a bolt?

A. A lock and key, but it opened in.

Q. Was it a wooden door?

A. Yes. . . .

Q. Now . . . did the people jump down the shaft as a means to try to escape?

A. Well, we found them in the shaft. We don’t know how they got there. . . .

William L. Beers, called as a witness and, being duly sworn, testified as follows:

Q. Mr. Beers, were you fire marshal of the city?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Were you connected with the Fire Department, and, if so, for how long?

A. I was with the Fire Department for twelve years, up to November 15, when I retired.

Q. During all that time were you Fire Marshal?

A. Assistant Fire Marshal and Fire Marshal.

Q. Did you visit the Triangle Waist Company Building immediately after the fire?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Did you make an investigation?

A. I was there all during the evening of the fire, and was there on the ground the next morning at nine o’clock.

Q. Tell us what you observed.

A. The result of my investigation and the taking of testimony for ten days after the fire was that I was of the opinion that the fire occurred on the eighth floor on the Greene street side, under a cutting table, which table was enclosed, and that contained the waste material as cut from this lawn that was used to make up the waists. They were in the habit of cutting about 160 to 180 thicknesses of lawn at one time; that formed quite a lot of waste, which was placed under the cutting tables, as it had a commercial value of about seven cents a pound.

Q. Was it boxed, or just placed on the floor?

A. Well, the boards that were nailed on the legs of the table formed the box or receptacle.

Q. The outside of that receptacle was wood?

A. Yes; it was all wood.

Q. How did the fire start there in that stuff?

A. Well, we formed the opinion that it started from the careless use of a match from one of the cutters. They were about to leave to go home, and in those factories they are anxious to get a smoke just as quick as they get through work.

Q. A man simply lighted a match?

A. Yes; and carelessly threw it under there; then the attention of the occupants was called to it, and they tried to extinguish it before they rang in a fire alarm.

Q. Did you examine the fire escapes of that building?

A. After the fire.

Q. What did you find?

A. I found the fire escape on the rear of the building, which was the only one, and was entirely inadequate for the number of people employed in that building.

Q. Why were they inadequate?

A. Too small and too light, and the iron shutters on the outside of the building when opened would have obstructed the egress of the people passing between the stairway and the platform.

Q. How many people were there on the eighth floor?

A. Something over 250, as I recall it.

Q. How many sewing machines?

A. There was a cutting department, and it was partially used for machines for making fine waists. About 220 persons were on the eighth floor, all of whom escaped.

Q. How did they come to escape?

A. They went down the stairway and down the fire-escape, some of them.

Q. How about the ninth floor?

A. The loss of life was greatest on the ninth floor. There were about 310 people there.

Q. How many sewing machines?

A. 288.

Q. Now, will you tell the Commission whether or not the place was overcrowded with the machines?

A. Yes, sir. All the space that could be utilized there was utilized.

Q. Were any attempts made in that case to extinguish the fire?

A. Yes, there were. They used fire pails there, and then attempted to use the fire hose.

Q. What happened to the fire hose?

A. Well, they claimed they could not get any water to it.

Q. How about the fire pail, why did that not put out the fire?

A. They did not get enough water to put it out. It spread very rapidly. The material is very inflammable, and it travels very fast, and the conditions were there, everything, to build a fire.

Q. How many fires would you say, Marshal, could have been prevented if ordinary precautions were used?

A. You mean in the factories?

Q. Yes.

A. I am not prepared to say Mr. Elkus. I am of the opinion that the precautions that are used to safeguard these premises in the form of installation of fire extinguishing apparatus would have a tendency to keep the fires down to a small size. All fires are of the same size at the start, and I think the loss and damage would be a great deal less by having available apparatus.

Source: State of New York, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1912, Vol. II (Albany: The Argus Company, Printers, 1912), 14, 19–20, 21.

See Also:Working for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company