Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Essay by EssaySwap ContributorCollege, Undergraduate February 2008

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A tragic incident occurred on March 25 1911, with a horrendous fire blazing through the Asch building at the northwestern corner of Washing and Greene streets, marking its place in time as the worst factory fire in New York history. The inferno began in the top three of ten floors of the building which was owned by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The company had employed nearly five hundred women, most to have been Jewish immigrant from the ages of thirteen to thirty-three. They worked in cramped, strict conditions enforced by the managers, such as being locked in, in order to prevent the women from abandoning their sewing machines. The fire began in the eighth floor cutting room as women were preparing to put away their work while the 4:45 quitting time was approaching. The flames fed through thousands of pounds of fabric causing it to spread rapidly. Most of the employees from the eighth and tenth floors were able to escape by rushing to stairs, the freight elevators, and the fire escape.

Unfortunately, those whom occupied the ninth floor did not survive because they were unable to open the locked door to the exit. Catastrophe continued as the rear fire escape collapsed, killing many and eliminating an escape route for others still trapped. Those who were determined to find a way to survive slide down elevator cables; some losing their grip and falling to their death. Several more women's dresses caught on fire, which caused them to franticly jump to their death from open windows. Pump Engine Company 20 and Ladder Company 20 hastily arrived at the scene, but were delayed by the display of bodies that had jumped. When extending the ladders from the fire engines, they came upon a shocking dilemma; the ladders only reached up to the sixth floor. The only rescue device they had left were safety nets. However, they broke when the workers jumped due to the weight and distance of how high the fall was. A gruesome 146 women died in a period of less than fifteen minutes. Investigators came to the conclusion that the fire began with a match left over from a member of the staff who lit a cigarette. Much outrage spread over the working conditions that had contributed to the fire. The owners of the company were charged with manslaughter and were later released from charges. In the year 1914, the owners were ordered by a judge to pay compensation of $75 each to the families, of the twenty-three victims, who had sued. This horrible event sparked support for efforts to organize workers in the garment industry, particularly for those who were part of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. This misfortune is said to be one of the most vivid symbols for the American labor movement of the need for government to ensure a safe workplace.