Today in History: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Tragedy
by M.C. Millman
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a quick-moving fire roared through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, killing 146 recently immigrated young Jewish women ages sixteen to twenty-three.
On the day of the fire, approximately five hundred workers out of the 1,000 employed there are the time were on the factory's eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. Once the fire broke out, workers on the eighth floor escaped through the staircase, while those on the tenth floor escaped onto the roof. Workers on the ninth floor were trapped by the fire as the employers kept the escape exits locked to prevent employees from stealing time.
The firefighter's ladder could not reach the ninth floor, and the fire escape bent in the heat and under the weight of the many trying to escape the inferno. Desperate workers jumped onto nets, trampolines, and blankets extended below, which collapsed under the weight of the many jumping. Others jumped from windows, their clothes on fire, and were killed by the impact, while the rest tragically burned to death.
The families of the victim were awarded the measly sum of one week's pay after the proprietors went on trial and were acquitted of any wrong doing. The owners subsequently collected insurance and reopened their factory at a new address.
The Jewish community suffered tremendously from the overwhelming tragedy. Sadly many Jewish girls who died in the fire worked there, even on Shabbos, as they felt they had no other choice if they wanted to be able to buy food and have a place to live.
Countless stories came out after the fire of the many young girls who overcame the temptation, and although they lost their jobs at the factory because of their inner strength, their lives were saved instead.
After the fire, an outpouring wave of sympathy for working women allowed for the creation of the New York State Committee on Safety, which investigated work conditions in factories, shops, and tenement houses. New measures limited the number of occupants on each factory floor depending on size, automatic sprinkler systems became the norm, and other new employment laws were created to protect women and children at work.
A special relief fund collected by the Jewish community and outside organizations sent funds to dependents living in New York, Russia, Austria, and even Palestine.
The fire was considered the worst disaster in New York City until the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and remains, until this day, one of the most burning symbols for the American labor movement of the essential need to ensure a safe workplace environment for all.