146 Die in Sweatshop Blaze
On March 25, 1911 one of the nation’s greatest fire disasters occurred at 23 Washington Place in New York City. The fire would cost the lives of 146 people and change fire safety laws in New York and around the country.
The fire started in the Asch Building, a new 10 story steel, brick, and wood building that owners described as having “fireproof rooms”. The fireproof promise attracted several garment making companies, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. This company rented the top three floors of the building and produced shirts and other clothing in what could only be described as sweatshop conditions. Owners Max Blanck and Isaac Hastings crammed 500 workers onto the 3 floors, paying low wages and demanding long hours.
A little before 5 pm a small fire broke out in an overflowing scrap bin on the 8th floor, possibly from a discarded cigarette. Due to the cluttered and unsanitary conditions, the fire quickly spread. Fabric hanging from the ceiling and scraps all over the floor caused the fire to spread at a fantastic rate. There was no fire alarm in the building and no one on the 9th floor was aware of the blaze until it was upon them. Emergency stairway doors were locked to prevent the theft of clothing and the one fire escape was inadequate and quickly collapsed due to overloading. The main stairwell was not locked but was quickly blocked by fire. The heroic actions of two elevator operators led to the evacuation of over a hundred women, but after three trips, fire caused them to halt.
Hundreds of employees, mostly young women were trapped. As FDNY units arrived on the scene bodies were already falling from the building. Faced with an inferno or a deadly fall, many women chose to leap from open windows. FDNY resources could not reach the blaze from the outside as the tallest aerial ladders could only reach the 6th floor. The newly deployed high-pressure water system and high-pressure pumps were able to get water to the standpipe on the 7th floor so firemen could start battling the blaze one floor at a time. The fire was put under control quickly, in less than 30 minutes, but the damage was done.
In total, 146 employees were killed in the blaze. Almost all were young immigrant women who were earning subsistence wages. If proper fire safety precautions were taken, most would have survived. Numerous violations led to the arrest of Triangle Shirtwaist owners Max Blanck and Isaac Hastings. They were indicted for first-degree manslaughter but were acquitted at trial.
There were numerous reforms that came from this tragedy. Labor laws were reviewed and changed to ensure worker safety and sanitary conditions. Building codes in New York were adjusted to ensure proper means of egress and sprinkler and alarm systems were installed. The FDNY formed the Bureau of Fire Prevention to ensure proper inspections and prevention steps were taken.