The time was 4:45 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon on March 25, 1911, New York. 500 female workers, ranging in ages from 13 to 23, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory are relieved halt their work for the day. Their hands are covered in dirt, grime, cuts and bruises. Dark circles have formed under their eyes for working their 12 hour long days, only to be paid their meager wages of $6 a week, barely enough to feed their families. More than three quarters of the workers are immigrants; Italian, European, Jewish, German and Yiddish who came to America in search of a better life only to be welcomed by a new culture and language, low paying jobs, filthy and unsanitary working conditions, and back breaking work. Yet still, for these unfortunate employees, more despair was yet to come, for as the young women slowly packed up to leave, there came a dreaded cry from just below them on the 811′ floor, a call that the workers had long prayed never to hear. But it came to their ears all the same: “Fire!” Someone yelled, “Fire!”

Immediately, a wave of women dashed for the one exit in terror. However, the door was pressed closed because of the on rush of fleeing women, for the door opened by pulling inwards. If the door had gone outwards, the workers could have easily opened the exit and flooded down the stairs to safety. But since the door opened the opposite way, the women could not, in their terror, think of anything else but saving themselves and blindly pushed up against the door, not knowing they were only preventing their escape.

All other doors on the floor tried to be opened, but all were found locked, no matter how desperately the women tugged and yanked at the knobs, their egress remained blocked. The workers began to see the flames of the red and yellow devilish tongues flicking about the bottom of the doors. The fire had spread quickly, within minutes. The women could already feel the heat lying against their faces, causing perspiration to drip. They knew they needed to get out fast or they would die. As a last resort, some employees fled to the windows where a limp and ill made fire escape was placed. But even this could not assist the women in their escape for, firstly, it lead to no- where and, secondly, was made of weak iron that bent under the weight of a single person and within a few steps had become quite bent and dangerous. There now was no escape from the greedy, devouring blaze that was beginning to surround them.

Soon, firetrucks arrived, quickly getting out their equipment to save those still captured inside on the top floors of the Triangle Factory. However, the ladders the fire fighters had could not reach the tallest stories of the factory, nor could the water that their hoses sprayed extinguish the fire there. It was around this time that a bundle of cloth was seen plummeting towards the earth, falling nine stories to bounce against the cement platform below. Then another came, then two at once. People watching in the street thought that these heaps were possessions being thrown out the windows by the workers inside. But as the observing crowd grew closer, they could define shattered skulls and broken limbs amongst the fabric. The bundles were bodies, women who had thrown themselves from the 9th floor windows, preferring to die fast than to be slowly consumed by the carnivorous flames. Sixty-two chose this fate, each standing in a window, looking down to the hard rock that awaited them at a nine story decent, the devil’s element cracking and popping behind them and feeling his hot breath against their sweating skin. Then they would jump, having the wonderful cool air whip at their heated bodies, giving them a sensation of floating, floating to safety, floating into hope and the embracing arms of mercy. Then thud, crack… they were dead. The people could do little but cover the dead after they had become deceased and move them off the sidewalk.

While this was going on, one brave fire fighter risked his life to take an elevator up to the top floors. He was greeted by burning heat and the ashen faces of the captive women. He loaded as many as he could into the elevator, saying be would be back for more if he could. As the elevator lowered, the officer heard an impact of weight hit the top of the car, shaking the entire elevator and frightening those inside. Blood could be seen dripping through the cracks in the roof. People were throwing themselves down the shaft in desperate attempts to escape the flames, only to end up crushed and mangled against the roof of the elevator. When the man and his rescued reached the bottom, they discovered twenty-five charred bodies of the suicidal workers. By this time, the fire was too dangerous for the officer to risk another trip to the top floors.

Hours later, the fire began to smolder and diminish. The factory remains were searched for survivors, but no one believed any mortal being could have escaped the deadly fire. This is what they saw: Room after room was black, black as death itself, leaving not a speck that held any hope or light. By the fading sun, searchers could see the burned carcasses of women huddled up against locked doors, some still holding their aims up to shield their faces from the flames. None were left to live.

The streets that night were crowded with the coffins of those dead for the families of the workers to come and inspect, come to see which of the corpses was their darling child, wife, niece, or grandchild. Mothers’ shrieks of anguish rang like gull cries in the air, never ceasing, never stopping the waterfall of misery that drenched their cheeks as they stared at the body of their loved one. It was torture.

Soon after this tragedy, workers in mills and factories began to stand up for their rights and protesting. People formed unions such as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and worked together to demand justice for those who died in the Triangle Factory fire and for the current workers in New York. The unions complained of the safety hazards that factories had such as no sprinklers in case of a fire, mostly locked doors preventing escape, unsanitary working conditions, only twenty-seven buckets of water per factory to put out flames, and inward opening doors. Finally, the Governor of New York, John A. Dix, appointed a factory investigation commission to inspect New York’s factories to see just how many bad these complained hazards. Finding that most factories and mills were very unsafe, Dix began to pass laws like the Factory Safety Legislation and Joint Board of Sanitary Control which worked to improve factories’ conditions and, in the long run, made mills much safer for workers.

As for the Triangle Factory, it’s two owners Isaac Harris and Max Blank were sent to trial, being accused of how ill kept their building was and how unfairly they paid thier workers. However, the two owners were not sent to jail but did end up being sued by twenty-five of the families that had lost a loved one in the factory’s fire. Hams and Blank also dutifully paid each of the families that had lost someone in the fire $75, as if money could sew up the holes that had permanently been punched into their souls.

In all, 146 out of the 500 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were killed in the fire of 1911. No one is certain just how the fire started but it is guessed that the burning began, perhaps, on the account of a dropped cigarette or a tipped over lamp. We will never know nor be able to find out. But what is known is that this fire was the worst disaster since the beginning of the industrial revolution and that almost a third of the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory perished when they were no more than twenty-five years of age, giving in to death before they had time to experience all that life had to hold. Safety is important and when it is not used can take lives in a moment.

Tis always better to be safe than sorry.


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