On this day in 1911, the eighth floor of the Asch building in New York City caught fire and spread, killing 146 workers, most of whom were young female immigrants.
The top floors of the building, where the fire began, belonged to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Many lives could have been spared if not for the factory owners’ negligence. The factory itself was a fire hazard, with fabric scraps piled high. To make matters worse, owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris locked the doors of the factory from the outside, thus providing the workers with no safe escape in case of a fire.
Luckily, women on the tenth floor were able to jump onto the next building, but those on the eighth and ninth floors were left with one functional elevator and a rusted fire escape. The elevator did in fact save around 150 workers before it stopped running; however, fewer than 20 workers safely made it down from the fire escape before it rusted and collapsed. All the other workers faced a tragic choice: jump or burn.
Here is United Press reporter William Shepherd’s eyewitness account of the horrifying incident:
I was walking through Washington Square when a puff of smoke issuing from the factory building caught my eye. I reached the building before the alarm was turned in. I saw every feature of the tragedy visible from outside the building. I learned a new sound–a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.
Thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead. Sixty-two thud-deads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet.
In the end, 146 people died, making it the worst disaster in New York City until September 11. The public was angered by the treatment of the workers and the consequent tragedy. Frances Perkins, who crusaded for better working conditions, said of the fire:
There was a sense of public guilt… Moved by this sense of stricken guilt, we banded ourselves together to find a way by law to prevent this kind of disaster
Following the fire, factory reform laws were passed in New York, and safety regulations were put in place that saved countless lives.
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