The Triangle Waist Co. fire (left) and a very similar fire at the Ha-Meem garment factory fire in Bangladesh. (Photo: Corbis/Newscom) View a slideshow of the Triangle Fire and its aftermath
What’s changed — and what hasn’t — in the 100 years since the Triangle Waist Co. fire
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2011
By Scott Sutherland
On December 14, 2010, wire services carried a story of a fire in a garment factory near Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Early reports indicated that dozens of people had died, and that many more were injured. Details were still coming in.
A more complete picture soon emerged. A fire had begun sometime after 1 p.m. on the ninth floor of an 11-story garment factory that employed more than 5,000 workers. The New York Times reported that the facility belonged to the Ha-Meem Group, a large clothing manufacturer that supplies global retailers including Gap and JCPenney. It was lunchtime, and many workers were outside, but a number were also eating in a lunchroom on the tenth floor, unaware of the fire below. The blaze, fueled by piles of fabric and clothing, spread quickly to the floors above, and the people in the lunchroom found themselves suddenly surrounded by smoke and flame. Some made a desperate dash to the eleventh floor; others, trapped in the lunchroom, smashed out windows and jumped to their deaths. As the fire spread to the eleventh floor, workers unfurled lengths of fabric from the windows and attempted to rappel to lower floors; some were killed or seriously injured when they lost their grip and plummeted to the ground below. One survivor of the fire told the BBC that an exit door on the eleventh floor had been locked. Subsequent accounts put the number of dead at 30, with more than 100 injured. Most of the dead or injured were young women. The cause of the fire has not been determined.
What made the story remarkable wasn’t necessarily the substance of the details, tragic as they were, but rather how closely they hewed to the details of a landmark fire a century earlier. All of the particulars of the Ha-Meem event — a fire in a garment factory located on the upper floors of a tall building; inadequate or nonexistent fire protection systems; insufficient, and possibly locked, exits; a largely female workforce; the spectacle of people jumping to their deaths rather than face the terror of the flames — were also present on March 25, 1911, when the Triangle Waist Co., a maker of women’s blouses, caught fire and burned in New York City, killing 146 and injuring scores. More than 60 died when they jumped from the building’s upper floors, their final moments witnessed by thousands of horrified onlookers. Triangle remains the deadliest accidental industrial building fire in the nation’s history. It also helped spark profound change in American society, including sweeping reforms that included the adoption and enforcement of a host of workplace safety measures. The development and creation of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, can be traced directly to the Triangle fire.
As the Ha-Meem fire and many others like it illustrate, however, the conditions that led to the Triangle disaster 100 years ago haven’t disappeared: they’ve merely relocated, again and again, following the paths of least resistance provided by the evolving global economy. What once made Manhattan so attractive for the barons of the garment industry — a seemingly endless supply of cheap labor, no protections for workers, and few workplace regulations — has existed, to varying degrees, in Mexico, Central America, Thailand, India, China, Bangladesh, and elsewhere. "As we’ve exported these jobs, we’ve also exported our factory fires," says Robert Ross, a professor of sociology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and author of the book Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops. "I’ve been researching these fires since 2005, and it’s uncanny how these events repeat themselves: unsafe conditions, locked doors, women and girls jumping out of windows. It’s the same problem over and over."
That’s why, in most of the upcoming commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire, remembrances of the event itself will take place side by side with observances of more recent fires that have plagued the international garment industry. There will be demands for industry accountability, and for governments to honor promises of regulation and enforcement. There will be calls for workers to continue to fight for unionization. There will be demands that U.S. authorities crack down on the illegal, unregulated sweatshops that continue to operate across the country, as clothing makers seek to take advantage of the latest waves of inexpensive immigrant labor. There will be earnest assessments of how far global workplace safety has come, and how far it has yet to go.
What binds those agendas, though, is Triangle. A century later, it has lost none of its power to move us, or to horrify us.
TRIANGLE REMAINS a pivotal event in American workplace fire safety, but it was not unique. Fires periodically killed workers in a variety of industrial settings in turn-of-the-century America; just four months before Triangle, a fire in a light bulb factory in Newark, New Jersey, spread to the floor above, which housed the production facilities for an underwear maker, resulting in the deaths of 25 garment workers. The Triangle Waist Co., which occupied the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building in Greenwich Village, at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, had experienced fires itself, but none that couldn’t be doused with the buckets of water that were located strategically on each floor.
In 1911, technology and practices that could have protected workers — enclosed stairways, fire walls, fire doors, automatic sprinkler systems, fire drills — existed, and in some cases were required, but few building owners bothered to implement them. Design shortcuts were common; the law called for a structure the size of the Asch Building to have three stairways accessing each floor, but the architect had received an exemption from the Building Department and provided just two, along with an exterior fire escape at the rear of the building that descended only as far as the second floor. The regulatory emphasis was on constructing buildings that could withstand fire, not protecting their inhabitants. "My building is fireproof," insisted Joseph P. Asch of his namesake building, which he’d constructed in 1901, to newspaper reporters the day after the fire. He also insisted that the building complied with all New York City codes — though as reformers, journalists, and a growing chorus of politicians were already pointing out, Asch’s claims of compliance were far from a guarantee of a fire-safe building.
The fire began on the eighth floor at about 4:40 p.m., as the factory’s roughly 500 workers — mostly young immigrant women, recent arrivals from Italy or Russia — were quitting for the day and heading for their customary exit, a pair of freight elevators located along the back wall, near the windows overlooking Greene Street. After having their handbags searched for stolen fabric or blouses, workers would board the elevators, which would take them to the ground floor. Each floor measured about 100 feet (30 meters) per side, and the large open area of the eighth floor contained tables used for cutting fabric, which was then assembled into shirtwaists, or blouses, by workers seated at sewing machines, which were mounted on six long tables. The blouses were made of thin cotton, and scraps were stored in bins beneath the cutting tables. An estimated ton or more of highly combustible scraps filled the bins on March 25.
It was from one of the bins located near the freight elevators that workers first noticed smoke, then flame, most likely the result of a match or cigar butt dropped into a bin by a cutter. Some of the men ran for buckets of water; in the moments it took them to return, the fire had billowed into something untamable. The water had no effect, and the fire spread into the room, cutting off the route to the freight elevators and threatening the access to a nearby stairway. Everything was fuel for the fire: the wooden tables and chairs, the wooden floor soaked with oil from the sewing machines, the fabric and blouses and tissue paper heaped around the room. Smoke raced along the ceiling as bits of flaming ash floated about, igniting yet more fires. A few moments more, and the room was an inferno, the workers screaming as they pushed toward the remaining exits: the stairwell near the freight elevators, and a stairwell and a pair of passenger elevators located diagonally across the large room, near the Washington Place windows.
Each floor tells its own story. On the eighth, most of the workers tried to cram into the two stairwells, but the door to the Washington Place stairs was locked — the idea was to funnel everyone through the Greene Street freight elevators, which made it easier to monitor theft. A machinist named Louis Brown was able to fight through the crowd to unlock the door to the Washington Place stairwell, only to find that it opened inward; he wrenched it open, and workers poured down the steps. Other workers rang frantically for the passenger elevators, which took agonizingly long to descend and return. Someone managed to drag in a standpipe hose from a stairwell in a last-ditch effort to fight the blaze, but no one could make it work. A small group of workers risked the flimsy iron fire escape, broke a window on the sixth floor, reentered the building, and were rescued by firefighters, who were at the scene a little more than five minutes after the fire began. Windows on the eighth floor began to blow out from the intense heat, and flames shot up the side of the building, especially at the rear near the fire escape. A worker made a panicked call to the tenth floor, where the owners’ offices were located, alerting them of the fire. She tried to call the ninth floor but couldn’t get through. Most of the people on the eighth floor got out.
Even with the alert from the eighth floor, the situation on ten quickly deteriorated. Within minutes, smoke and enormous flames were shooting up past the floor-to-ceiling windows on the Greene Street side, and the room was filling with smoke. The floor included a pair of long pressing tables, shipping facilities, and, along the Washington Place side, offices for Triangle’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. The elevators were delayed, and fire was blasting into the stairwells of the floors below, blocking escape. The stairwell near the Greene Street side led to the roof, and most of the roughly 60 workers on ten, along with Blanck and Harris, retreated there. Flame and heavy smoke from below made even the rooftop precarious, and the roofs of the two adjoining buildings were too high to climb to. A professor and his students in a neighboring New York University building came to the group’s aid, and used painters’ ladders to help the Triangle workers climb to safety. All of the people from ten who made it to the roof were rescued.
No such options were available to the more than 250 workers on the ninth floor. The room was dominated by eight 75-foot-long (25-meter) sewing machine tables, 30 workers to a table. No warning call had come from the floor below, and most of the workers were still idling as they awaited the freight elevators, collected their coats and pocketbooks, or chatted with co-workers at the long tables. By the time they realized what was happening, five minutes after the fire began on the eighth floor, flames were shooting up past the large windows at the rear of the room; within moments, fire had blown out the windows and was rapidly pushing its way in, threatening to cut off the freight elevators and neighboring stairs.
Terrified workers scrambled over the machines and the long, close-set tables to reach elevators or stairwells. The elevators, already besieged by calls from the eighth and tenth floors, were slow to arrive. Workers raced for both stairwells, and again found the door to the Washington Place stairs locked. This time, though, no one could unlock it or pry it open. A number of people got down the Greene Street stairwell, but intense flame at the eighth floor soon blocked the way down for the rest. A few braved the growing flames in the stairwell and headed for the tenth floor, but many seemed unaware that the stairs led to the roof and the possibility of safety. People crowded in desperation onto the steep, narrow fire escape. The passenger elevators finally arrived, and women surged into the cars, 20 or more in cars designed for 10, some with their hair or dresses aflame.
About 10 minutes after the fire began on the floor below, intense flames had divided the ninth floor, cutting off many workers from the exits. Fire backed them toward the Washington Place and Greene Street windows. Observers on the streets below initially thought the smoking shapes falling to the pavement were bundles of fabric being salvaged by the factory’s owner; it became clear soon enough what was happening. They began to come down in pairs, and in threes and fours. Firefighters deployed life nets, but the people fell with too much force, smashing through the webbing. A hook and ladder arrived, but its ladder reached only to the sixth floor; a girl paused in a ninth-floor window, made an impossible leap for the ladder’s top wrung nearly 30 feet (10 meters) below, and missed. At the back of the building, the fire escape collapsed, pitching dozens of people, many of them already burning, to their deaths.
The two passenger elevators continued to ferry workers from the ninth floor to the lobby. One of them tried to return to the ninth but was stopped by warped tracks at the eighth floor, the result of intense heat blowing into the elevator shaft. A few workers pried open the doors to the shaft and jumped for the cable. A few survived. Most missed, or sought the shaft as a desperate alternative to the overwhelming flames. The second car became stuck at the bottom of the shaft, unable to move because of the volume of bodies that had landed on it, bending its iron roof. "They kept coming," one of the elevator operators recalls, in Leon Stein’s classic book The Triangle Fire. "Some of their clothing was burning as they fell. I could see the streaks of fire coming down like flaming rockets."
It was over in a little more than 15 minutes. "At 4:57 a body in burning clothes dropped from the ninth floor ledge [and] caught on a twisted iron hook protruding at the sixth floor," Stein writes. "For a minute it hung there, burning. Then it dropped to the sidewalk. No more fell."
TRIANGLE'S REIGN as the world’s deadliest industrial building fire (excluding bombings and explosions) lasted until 1993, when the Kader toy factory fire near Bangkok, Thailand, killed 188 and injured hundreds.
It wasn’t the garment industry this time, but it bore a close resemblance. A workforce of mostly women and girls, some as young as 13, made toys for American companies that included Fisher-Price, Hasbro, Kenner, and others, according to The New York Times. There were significant fuel loads in the form of fabric, plastics, and stuffing materials. There were no sprinkler systems, alarms didn’t function properly, and the exits were woefully inadequate. The authors of the NFPA fire investigation report on the incident trace a clear line back to 1911. "In terms of analyzing the Kader fire, a direct comparison with the Triangle fire provides a useful benchmark," they write. "Topics that deserve mention in terms of similarities include the initial fuel package, extent of horizontal and vertical fire separations, fixed fire protection systems, arrangement of exits, and fire safety training…Inadequate exit arrangements was perhaps the most significant factor in the high loss of life at both the Kader fire and the Triangle fire." Use of the Life Safety Code, they go on to say, "would have dramatically reduced the loss of life."
One of the authors of the report was Casey Grant, now research director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. "When you look at a fire like this, you can’t help but think we’re condemned to reliving Triangle over and over again," says Grant, who toured the Kader site and worked with the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency that monitors international labor standards, to compile the report. "Collectively, I think we’re making progress on these issues around the world, but we have a ways to go." Grant is quick to note that while developed countries can serve as safety examples for poorer, less regulated nations, they’re far from perfect models; a 1991 fire at an Imperial Foods chicken processing facility in Hamlet, North Carolina, killed 25 workers and injured 54 when locked doors prevented their escape. Investigators found that the plant had never received a safety inspection during its 11 years of operation.
While such fires receive significant media coverage in the U.S., it’s often a different story when the fire is half way around the world. In his introduction to the 2001 edition of Stein’s book, the journalist William Greider offers a caustic assessment of the muted reaction to the Kader fire, a result of the global economic conditions that spawned it. "Abusive conditions are now scattered around the world, often in obscure places that are not visible to the public," he writes; outrage is local and not widely reported. "Most developing countries, including China and Thailand, have sound laws that require safe working conditions," he continues. "These laws are widely unenforced and regularly evaded by businesses, including the subcontractors who supply major American multinationals…the laws are subverted by fierce competition among poor countries, all of whom are desperate for foreign investment and new factories that promise jobs and growth." He quotes a Thai minister of industry who sums up the predicament that comes with punishing lawbreakers: "If we punish them, who will want to invest here?"
Manufacturers’ so-called "race to the bottom" — aggressively scouring the globe for locations with the cheapest labor and the fewest regulatory concerns — is now embodied by Bangladesh, where roughly 5,000 garment factories employ some 3 million workers, making it the country’s largest industry, and one that continues to bear the garment industry’s historic burden of fire. According to the International Labor Rights Forum, between 2006 and 2009, 414 workers were killed in 213 reported garment factory fires. In February, 2010, another fire near Dhaka killed 21 workers in a sweater factory that produced clothing for H&M and other brands.
A pair of sentences in a New York Times story on the Ha-Meem fire suggests that not much differentiates the fire safety concerns of 2011 Bangladesh and 1911 New York City: "Piles of clothes in garment factories are easily combustible. Fires can be very deadly because some factory owners lock exits to prevent workers from leaving their machines."
THE BUILDING is still there, or at least most of it. The Asch Building has since been incorporated into a larger building housing classrooms and offices for New York University, but the facades along Washington Place and Greene Street look much as they did a century ago. On March 25, thousands will gather at the building to commemorate the fire. They’ll imagine the corner as it might have looked in 1911, and they’ll imagine people poised high in the windows, flames billowing behind them.
In 1911, there were no laws requiring fire sprinklers or fire drills in New York City factory buildings, many of them as tall or taller than the Asch Building. Stein writes that by September, 1909, the city numbered 612,000 workers in 30,000 factories, and that by early 1911 about half that total number was employed above the seventh floor. The fire department’s ladders and hoses were generally only effective up to the sixth floor.
Of the 146 who died in the Triangle fire, all but six had been working on the ninth floor. Of the dead, 129 were women and girls. More than 60 of the victims where teenagers; the youngest were 14. Among the dead was a mother and her two daughters. Eight months after the fire, Triangle’s owners, Blanck and Harris, were acquitted by a jury on charges of manslaughter. The Triangle Waist Co. moved to another building, and in 1913 an inspector in New York City’s newly formed Bureau of Fire Prevention found a door to the factory locked with a chain, during working hours and with 150 workers inside. Blanck was arrested and fined $20. That same year, a garment factory fire in Binghamton, New York, killed 35 workers, drawing immediate comparisons to Triangle.
By then, though, the spectacle of Triangle had touched off an intense period of reform. By 1914, the state of New York had enacted dozens of laws that reshaped factory safety, including fire safety, and became a national model. At the urging of a young reformer named Frances Perkins, who would go on to become Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt, NFPA expanded its mission from protecting buildings to protecting the people who worked in them, and undertook efforts that would eventually result in the creation of the Building Exits Code, the precursor to the Life Safety Code. These steps were all part of a broader progressive reform movement that addressed not only safety, but wage-and-hour issues, an end to child labor, and much more. It has been argued that the central tenet of FDR’s New Deal — government as protector of the people — was born in the flames of Triangle.
But as the historian Mike Wallace points out, gains won are often, and easily, lost. "Many of the initial post-Triangle reforms were strenuously opposed by conservative businessmen…[who were] soon back in the saddle and able to halt, hamstring or reverse liberal initiatives," he writes in a 2003 New York Times review of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, a book by the journalist David Von Drehle. "The New Deal expanded the terrain of social democracy, but by the late 1930s, opponents had regained the initiative and dismantled many of its signature programs. In the 1960s and 1970s, reformers won health and safety and pollution regulations; today’s free marketers are whittling these away. And sweatshops that exploit vulnerable and unorganized immigrant workers are again alive and malignantly well in New York City."
While the working definition of sweatshops involves abuse of wage and hour laws, Joel Shufro, who has been executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health for 32 years, says the problems rarely stop there. "If employers aren’t following wage laws, they surely aren’t following safety and health regulations," he says. "Our experience is that in many cases the dictum ‘safety pays’ is not applicable for these employers — it’s cheaper in many cases for them to expose workers to toxics and hazards and to literally discard these people." Threats like these speak to the "tremendous need" to expand enforcement, Shufro says, because the current mechanisms in place to protect workers are insufficient. "The safety net that grew out of Triangle has protected workers and citizens for generations, but it’s being shredded by people who are hostile to any form of regulation, both in Washington, D.C., and in many states."
The sociologist Robert Ross tells of a recent visit to a small garment factory in the Chinatown section of Boston. "There was a security grate that came three-quarters the way down the front door, so you had to get on your hands and knees to get into the place," he says. "There were fleece garments piled shoulder high in the aisles, and the door at the back was padlocked from the outside. It was a miniature Triangle waiting to happen."
TRIANGLE WASN'T the only fire in Lower Manhattan that left an impression on Leon Stein. In March, 1958, a large fire erupted in a factory building just blocks from his office, and five blocks from where Triangle had occurred. He rushed to the scene, a six-story building at Houston Street and Broadway. A fire had begun in a textile factory on the third floor, and spread to a union garment factory on the fourth. A large section of the fourth floor had collapsed, killing 24. The building had no sprinklers, an inadequate fire escape, and had not conducted fire drills. It had been more than three decades since NFPA created the Building Exits Code.
As he watched bodies being lowered to the street in baskets, Stein suddenly saw a friend in the crowd: Josephine Nicolosi, who’d survived the eighth floor of Triangle and whose story he would include in his book, The Triangle Fire, which he would publish in 1962. She was crying. She gripped his wrists and shook them in despair.
"What good have been all the years?" she asked him, imploring, as smoke rose from the building behind her. "The fire still burns."
By Scott Sutherland
Frances Perkins saw it with her own eyes. She was 30, a social worker living in New York City, and was visiting a friend for Saturday tea in Greenwich Village when the afternoon was split by the wail of sirens. She and her friends ran to the other side of Washington Square, and were among the throngs who witnessed the spectacle of the Triangle fire firsthand.
The fire, and the subsequent impassioned calls to action by labor reformers, had a profound impact on Perkins, and she vowed to take up the reform cause. She wasted little time; by the following year, she had become executive secretary of the Committee on Safety, a non-governmental body formed in the days following the Triangle fire to push for system-wide reforms for worker safety. It was as part of her extensive lobbying efforts that Perkins — who had also become an expert in the minutiae of building safety — addressed the 17th annual meeting of NFPA in May, 1913, in New York. Specifically, Perkins urged the organization to advocate for codes that protected not just buildings, but also the people who worked in them. NFPA created the Committee on Life Safety the following year, and in 1927 issued the Building Exits Code, the forerunner to today’s Life Safety Code®.
Perkins was named Secretary of Labor in 1933 by Franklin Roosevelt, becoming the first female Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.
The following are excerpts from Perkins’ 1913 speech to NFPA’s members, "The Social and Human Cost of Fire."
Remember the Triangle Fire
Friday, March 25, 11 a.m.
Washington Place and Greene Street
New York City
This wide-ranging commemorative effort by the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition encompasses workplace safety, labor issues, history, art, music, activism, and more. Activities are many and ongoing, including events in cities across the country, but the Coalition’s signature event is the annual commemorative ceremony that takes place in New York’s Greenwich Village at the site of the Triangle fire. A notable feature of this year’s ceremony will be the reading of the names of all 146 victims of the fire, the first time a comprehensive list has existed. Michael Hirsch, a New Yorker and an amateur genealogist and historian, spent years tracking down the identities of six previously unidentified victims. He is a co-producer of "Triangle: Remembering the Fire," a documentary that will begin airing on HBO on Monday, March 21, at 9 p.m.
Out of the Smoke and the Flame: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and its Legacy
Thursday, March 24, 9 a.m.–6:30 p.m.
City University of New York Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue, New York City
This day-long conference is related to the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition activities, but offers a more focused look at the event and its legacy from labor, safety, historical, and academic perspectives. Speakers range from David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, to David Von Drehle, author of the 2003 history Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. Robert Solomon, NFPA’s department manager for building and life safety codes, will be a featured panelist for "Could Triangle Happen Today?," a roundtable discussion of workplace fire safety. Registration for the conference is free and open to the public, but enrollment is limited.
In this Section:
|The Triangle Fire, 100 Years Later
The circumstances that led to the fire at the Triangle Waist Co. on March 25, 1911, still exist in factories throughout the world — and the U.S. is no exception.