It was a sunny but raw day in New York City, a late Saturday afternoon and the streets near Washington Square in the immigrant Greenwich Village neighborhood were teaming with traffic. Around 4:45, as the many garment industry sweatshops were preparing for their “early” Saturday closing, pedestrians began to notice smoke billowing from the upper floors of the Asch Building, at 29 Washington Place.
Crowds gathered to watch as horse drawn fire engines and ladder trucks pounded to the scene. Soon witnesses watched in horror as one after another young women leapt from the burning building to sure death on the pavement below—the Fire Department’s ladders were too short to reach the windows from which they jumped. It was March 25, 1911. The top three floors of the building, housing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had turned into a roaring inferno.
About 500 workers were getting ready to leave when the fire started smoldering in the scrap bin under a cutting table, probably ignited by a carelessly discarded cigarette or cigar. Before it was over 146 of them, mostly young Italian and Jewish women, would perish. Many would be piled against locked exit doors to die of asphyxiation. Sixty-two victims leaped to their death on the sidewalk or were killed when the sole fire escape collapsed. Others jumped down elevator shafts after the elevators, which managed to rescue several, stopped working when the fire’s heat twisted the rails on which they ran. At least 71 others were reported injured, although many more were probably tended at home, unable to afford medical care.
It was not the first fire in such a factory. In fact, authorities had reported an epidemic of fires at shirtwaist factories. This was one, however, was made worse because of overcrowding on the shop floors, failure to clear flammable material—scrap bins had not been emptied in two months—and because stairways and exits were either blocked by bales of material or padlocked to prevent employee pilferage.
The factory occupied the 8, 9, and 10 floors of the building, all beyond the reach of ladders which could only reach the sixth floor at full extension. There was no alarm system and on the most crowded production floor, the 9th, the first warning was literally when flames erupted. By that time most office personnel, including the owners and their visiting children had already been able to evacuate from the higher floor to the safety of the roof.
There had, of course, been awful industrial accidents and fires before. Mine collapses were commonplace. Many were killed in boiler explosions on steamships and riverboats, others died in railroad accidents. Fires had devastated lint-filled textile plants. But never had such a calamity played out so publicly on the streets of the nation’s premier city with the press—including photographers—on hand to record the horror. The fact that most of the victims were young women, girls in their teens mostly, added to the impact. Grimy men were expected to be expendable, girls were not.The sewing floor of a typical shirtwaist factory and the young women who worked there.
Lurid headlines and gruesome photos spread across the country. Both the city and state governments launched investigations, which would lead eventually to the establishment of the nation’s strongest industrial workplace safety and labor laws in New York state. It spurred the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and other needle trade unions which made safety a key issue. Many years later the Federal government added its weight to worker safety with the establishment of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) under the Department of Labor.
Today the labor movement commemorates the anniversary, but the hard fought gains paid for by those dead shop girls are under attack from coast-to-coast. Whether under the guise of cost cutting, deregulation, or a frank assault on the working class, attempts are ongoing to defund, strip authority from, or abolish altogether OSHA and its state counterparts while blocking in every possible way the rights of workers to defend themselves through unions or by suing for damages in the courts. Under the former Trump mal-administration and with Federal Courts increasingly in the hands of right-wing judges that trend accelerated.Protests like this large parade featuring a contingent of Jewish women workers from the United Hebrew Trades demanded enactment of factory safety laws and organized shops into powerful unions.
The old battles have to be refought. Hopefully it will not take another tragedy of epic proportion to re-prick the public conscience.
Today the Asch Building, now known as the Brown Building, still stands. It is a designated landmark, as much, we are told, for its architectural significance as the site of a tragedy. And in 2012, after years of painstaking research, the last 10 victims of the fire were finally identified.