It Takes A Tragedy

On March 25, 1911, 146 workers died in a fire in New York City. None were famous, none were wealthy, and yet their deaths transformed our lives.

They were locked in, on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of a building near Washington Square. The owners of the company, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, locked the workers in, purportedly to keep union organizers out.

Their trial for manslaughter lasted three weeks. More than 150 testified, among them survivors, firefighters, police officers, engineers, and the accused themselves.

The victims of the fire were mostly young girls, teenagers, immigrants from Russia, Italy, Romania, Austria, even Jamaica. They leapt from the windows of the burning building and died on the sidewalks in front of the helpless firefighters whose ladders only reached the 6th floor. The elevator failed, the fire escape collapsed, the rows of machines obstructed them, and the doors locked them in.

It’s been 106 years. Because of this disaster at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, we have sprinkler systems, exit doors that swing outward, and building codes that do not allow heaps of cloth and tissue paper to pile up around workers. Exits must not be blocked, flammables must be stored safely (there were barrels of oil standing under windows, and boxes blocking the stairwells), and fire alarms.

Even with fire safety regulations on the books in New York, factories were unsafe. Harris and Blanck got off, and were caught locking doors again in 1913. It took another 20 years to get the same at the federal level, and almost 50 years to get the regulations to stick, after 24 more died in another fire in a garment shop in 1958.


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