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By Glynn Cosker
Managing Editor, EDM Digest
In modern times, not knowing the location of the nearest emergency exit is a foreign concept to most people. Usually, there is a map showing the quickest emergency escape route in every non-residential building in the United States – or there should be.
If a fire erupts, computerized alarm systems in buildings commonly blare loudly, sprinkler systems immediately help to douse the flames, and the local fire department is alerted and dispatched. Additionally, there are fire extinguishers in rooms and hallways.
However, fire safety was practically nonexistent in the early 20th century. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which was located on the top three floors of a 10-story building near Washington Square Park in New York City. The disaster, the worst in the city’s history at the time, killed 146 people.
Triangle Workers Trapped by Fire
The fire started as hundreds of employees were winding down their work for the day. The fire started in a rag bin, grew out of control and rapidly swept through the company’s eighth, ninth, and 10th floors. But terrified workers soon discovered that their employers had locked the only exit doors in an effort to prevent theft.
Scores of Triangle factory workers – mostly young immigrant women in their late teens and twenties – were trapped as the fire spread. Some of the women headed for the building’s external fire escape, but it collapsed and caused victims to plummet to the street. Most victims succumbed to smoke inhalation or were consumed by the flames.
Horrific Choices Faced by Triangle Employees
As the fire intensified, dozens of workers had to choose between dying from immolation or by leaping to their deaths onto the concrete sidewalk 100 feet below. Most chose to jump, and the rest of the workers never made it out of the building.
In 1911, the New York City Fire Department was not equipped for a fire of this magnitude. In fact, the water stream from the fire department’s hoses and ladders only reached as high as the seventh floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company building -- even though the city had dozens of skyscrapers. Any person above the seventh floor was doomed.
As horrific as the Triangle fire was, its aftermath is now widely considered a critical and essential period that eventually led to one of the most significant and enduring drives for labor reform and fire safety regulations in U.S. history.
Cowardly Owners Escape
Isaac Harris and Max Blanck owned the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. In order to achieve higher profits, Harris and Blanck produced cheap shirtwaists in vast quantities and made their employees work long hours for little income in overcrowded accommodations.
When the Triangle Fire occurred, both Harris and Blanck fled upstairs from their offices on the 10th floor to the roof -- and escaped death by stepping onto an adjacent building. The dissent and outrage following the fire was so impassioned and widespread that it became the foundation for changing workplace safety rules and regulations in New York and, ultimately, the United States.
Triangle Factory Owners Acquitted of Any Wrongdoing
The outrage intensified after a New York trial acquitted Harris and Blanck of manslaughter. The main reason for their acquittal was that the safety rules in place at the time of the fire were so lax that the Triangle Shirtwaist Company actually fell well within the regulations.
For instance, in 1911, New York City law left the matter of adequate and easily accessible fire escapes to the discretion of building inspectors, and there was no official fire safety code in place. Mandatory and regulated fire drills were also nonexistent.
Although sprinkler systems were prevalent in other jurisdictions, they were not mandatory in the city. The safety rules in place in 1911 in New York made the Triangle Shirtwaist Company’s work floors a firetrap – a tragedy waiting to happen.
The Triangle fire and the acquittal of Harris and Blanck produced a huge public outcry. Thousands of people marched down the streets of Manhattan during the victims’ funerals. The emotional response would soon usher in a legislative one.
Factory Investigation Commission Created
The Triangle Fire exposed the unsafe conditions prevalent in numerous New York City factories and buildings. The city's working class, its various unions and middle-class progressives all demanded reform – and they got it with the formation of an official factory investigation commission. From 1911 to 1919, the commission investigated the safety of factories and eventually helped pass legislation that prevented future fire-related disasters.
Over 1,000 NY Industrial Buildings Received Safety Inspections
The commission was concerned with the welfare of all workers, a notion that Harris and Blanck had scoffed at. Within its first year, the commission inspected 1,836 industrial establishments in the city and heard from 222 witnesses, finding that a shocking 14 New York industrial buildings had no fire escapes.
Also, the commission held hearings before the New York state legislature and proposed new laws or amendments to existing safety regulations, and the legislature then enacted remedial statutes. The labor laws passed between 1911 and 1919 were in line with the commission’s findings – i.e., if the commission uncovered a problem, new regulations followed shortly afterward.
Triangle Fire Led to the Introduction of Federal Fire Safety Reforms
It took a horrific tragedy to implement reform in New York City, but reform occurred with the introduction of mandatory fire drills, sprinkler system installation, regulated working conditions, and limited working hours for women and children. In effect, everything that caused the deaths at the Triangle factory became illegal.
Furthermore, most of the enacted New York reforms quickly became the law of the land and President Franklin Roosevelt's “New Deal” brought similar reforms (at the federal level) to the United States. By the end of World War II, regional, state, and national laws were in place that now help to prevent atrocities like the Triangle Fire from happening again.