Saturday, April 3, 2010

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On March 25, 1911, just a little over 99 years ago, the worst workplace disaster in New York City history occurred when the upper floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire and hundreds of mostly female garment workers were trapped inside the building because the managers of the factory kept the exit doors locked during working hours and because the exit doors opened inward instead of outward so that when the workers crowded toward the exit, the doors could not be opened to free them from the flames and smoke. Many of the women died when they leaped from the 9th or 10th floor to flee this holocaust. In all, 146 workers died and 70 more were badly injured.

These sad statistics cannot begin to capture the horror of that day however. By the time firefighters arrived, the street was already littered with fallen corpses, making it difficult to position the ladders properly. Once they were properly fixed, however, the ladders were too short to reach the screaming workers. Even the water hoses lacked sufficient pressure to reach the 8th floor. Some rescues were made with elevators that held only 10 passengers at a time. A human chain was used to transfer some of the workers to a window where the fire was not raging, but within minutes those forming the chain had also fallen to their death. When firefighters finally reached the burning floors, groups of women were found dead huddled together in horror, while others were unrecognizable, as their bodies were melted against the locked doors. There was horror even in the aftermath, as only 65 coffins were available, even though at least a 100 were needed.

Considerable good did come out of this horrible tragedy. In fact, it has been said that the progressive movement in New York City can be dated from the impact of the Triangle Factory Fire. Public officials such as Al Smith, Robert Wagner, and Frances Perkins worked with a coalition of labor organizations and other officials to pass worker safety and worker compensation regulations, which, in turn, led to a whole series of additional regulations to protect the public safety and promote the public good. Indeed, it is said that the Triangle Fire transformed New York, leading to the dismantling of the worst tenements and ushering in the era of New Deal-type legislation that continues to this day, helping to turn New York from an uncaring urban behemoth into one of the most caring and humane municipalities in the world.

1 comment:

  1. We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all of us are created equal, and endowed with certain unalienable Rights. Among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. To secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, with Powers organized in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
    Please excuse the paraphrasing and the hubris that compels me to set it down and comment as many far more qualified have done in the past. When I parse these words it is clear to me that Government should, yea must, facilitate the Safety and Happiness of all those whose consent gives the power to govern. We are our fellows keepers and this is how we fulfill that role.
    Thanks for bring us back to this from time to time, Third. I really appreciate it.