DEATH IN THE TRIANGLE
The History, Hauntings & Horror of America's Worst Factory Fire
On this date, March 25, 1911, a Manhattan sweatshop, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, caught fire, claiming the lives of 148 people – mostly young women – in a matter of minutes. With doors locked to prevent theft and insufficient fire escapes, many of the workers jumped to their deaths from the upper floors of the building, rather than risk being burned alive. The fire shocked the entire nation, changed safety rules forever – and left a haunting in its wake.
The Asch building, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, was a rather nondescript ten-story building. The owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, rented or subcontracted out the lower seven floors of the building to various other similar enterprises. They saved the eighth, ninth and tenth floors for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory, which they operated to make ladies blouses, then known as shirtwaists.
Employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were not allowed to leave the building by the main doors. At the end of the work day they were required to go to the rear exit door, which was kept locked during the hours of operation for fear of theft. Here, the employees were routinely searched before leaving, lest they try to steal something. Since the young ladies who worked in the sweatshop only knew this one exit to get out in the event of a fire, terrible things occurred on these rear stairs.
March 25, 1911 was a Saturday and a fine day according to all accounts. Most sweatshop workers in the city were released by lunchtime for their Saturday half day-off, including those who worked on the lower seven floors of the Asch Building. However, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company kept most of their employees hard at work until 5:00 p.m. Most of the factory employees, nearly five hundred women and one hundred or so men, were at work that day. Most of the women were very young, aged sixteen to 23, and very few of them spoke English. They were largely Italian, German, Russian and Hungarian immigrants and many of them were the primary wage earners for their families. The men employed there worked mostly in the capacity of office workers and management.
Around 4:40 p.m., just ten minutes before the end of the workday, cries of “fire!” rang out on the eighth floor. No one ever learned exactly how the fire started but most speculated that it was caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette or match.
Within a few minutes, flames were pouring from windows of the top three floors of the Asch building. Four fire alarms were sounded immediately but the fire was already so intense that the first five women to jump to their deaths did so before even the first fire truck had arrived.
Of the two elevators in the building, only one was in working order. A few minutes after the fire began, the only stairwell was full of flames and smoke, making it impossible to flee using that route. Thomas Gregory, an elevator operator from another building who was on his way home that day, ran into the building and made three more trips with the elevator before it broke down. He described leaving masses of terrified, panic-stricken people trying to fight their way onto the elevator but was only able to take fifteen or so people on each trip.
Even though the elevator was no longer operating, the shaft doors were forced open and several people attempted to escape by sliding down the elevator cables. At least two people were successful in their attempt. A young woman, later pulled from the shaft alive, said she passed out on her way down the cables and had no memory of what happened next but she believed that she survived because she landed on several of the dead bodies of her fellow workers, which cushioned her fall. Another man reported using the same cables to flee. Unfortunately, as he slid down, the body of a young woman falling from above, knocked him from the cables and he fell the final few floors. After the fire, 25 bodies were pulled from the bottom of the elevator shaft, many of whom had simply jumped to their deaths to escape the flames.
Both Harris and Blanck, the building’s owners, were in the building when the fire started, along with Blanck’s children and their nanny. All escaped by making their way to the roof, a means of escape that was not known to most of the factory workers. The doors to the roof were kept locked on all but the top floor.
About two hundred workers did eventually make their way to the roof, most of them from the tenth floor. The New York University Law School building was located just across a small courtyard but was one story higher. As the fire raged, several law students led by Charles Kremer and Elias Kanter rushed to the aid of the victims. They tied two short ladders together so that the victims could climb to the roof of their building. Kremer climbed down onto the lower roof to help them up the ladder, and in this way they were able to save one hundred and fifty men, women and girls. Kremer then made his way down into the tenth floor to look for more survivors. He saw only one young girl, her hair ablaze. She ran toward him screaming and then fainted in his arms. He put out her burning hair then carried her to safety, believing there to be no one else surviving left behind on that floor. Meanwhile, at the other end of the roof, about fifty people had gathered and were fighting to scale the five feet to the roof of the adjoining building. Several of the law students reported seeing men kicking and biting the women and girls, knocking them out of the way as they escaped to safety.
After the fire department arrived, many attempts were made to save trapped or falling victims. Unfortunately, their ladders only reached a little above the sixth floor. Several people tried to jump to the ladders but none were able to catch hold and all fell to their deaths. Safety nets were also employed but to little or no avail. The great height was just too much and many of the nets split or were shredded as bodies fell through them, crashing to the pavement. In one case, a young girl was caught in a net but three others who jumped just after, landed on her and all four toppled onto the ground, dead. A few bystanders tried to stretch blankets or tarps but the results were nearly all the same. The number of people saved in this manner could be counted on one hand. One woman fell with such force that she ripped through a safety net and crashed through the thick glass vault in the sidewalk, finally coming to rest in the basement of the building.
Several rescue workers were injured when falling bodies struck them. People were falling faster than the firefighters could get into position to try to catch them. The firefighters' rescue efforts were further hindered by the growing number of corpses strewn about the sidewalks, making it difficult for them to move the safety nets. The bodies were left lying where they fell until later that evening, as the firefighters were busy fighting the fire. It was believed none of those who had fallen could still be alive.
A few hours later, however, a young woman was pulled from a pile of bodies, still breathing. A great cheer arose as she was loaded into an ambulance. Sadly, though, she died a few minutes later.
As the upper floors of the building burned, a crowd of thousands, gathering in the streets below bore witness to the carnage that was unfolding before them. They screamed in horror as they watched, helpless. Many eyewitness reports of the tragic deaths of the people who fell to their deaths from the windows of the Washington Place and Greene Street sides soon followed. Some jumped, some were thrown or pushed and others were forced out by the panic-stricken crowds shoving their way toward the windows. A majority of those who fell did so with burning clothing and hair. Some continued to burn as they lay on the sidewalk until they were extinguished by the water dripping down from the fire hoses, their blackened bodies left lying there until late in the evening.
Five young women on the Greene Street side of the building climbed out onto the windowsill, wrapped their arms around each other and jumped together. They crashed through the sidewalk cover into the basement, their clothes and hair burning as they fell. Another girl leaped very far out but her dress got tangled up in some wires and she was left suspended high above as the crowd watched, unable to help. Eventually, her dress burned through and she fell to her death. A man on the same side was seen from an adjacent building, running from window to window picking up women and throwing them out the windows. Eventually, when no other women were left, he himself climbed onto the ledge, paused a moment then jumped. It was never known if he believed that there would be nets to catch them or if he was trying to shorten their suffering.
A young girl of about thirteen was seen hanging by her fingertips from a ninth-floor windowsill for a few minutes. Then the fire reached her fingers and she fell into a waiting net, only to be crushed by two other women who fell immediately after her, adding all three to the death list.
Some of the girls who jumped from the Washington Place side crashed through the vault light in the sidewalk. As women continued to fall or jump from the same window, their bodies eventually created a hole nearly five feet in diameter. Later in the evening, firefighters pulled several partially nude and burned bodies from this hole.
Another pair of girls climbed out of a window on the ninth floor, overlooking Greene Street. The older of the two seemed calm and composed as she tried to subdue the younger girl as she “shrieked and twisted with fright.” As the crowd called to them not to jump, the older girl wrapped her arms around her and pulled her back toward the building. The younger girl, in her panic, twisted free, took a few steps away and then she jumped. The older girl remained standing on the ledge until the flames came so close that her hair was scorched. She looked skyward, placed her arms to her sides, and jumped straight down, feet first. Her name was Bertha Weintrout and she was the girl who was later found alive, if only for a few minutes, buried amid a pile of corpses on the sidewalk.
Six girls, after getting to a window on the ninth floor made their way out onto an eight-inch-wide ledge that ran the length of the building. Slowly, they edged their way along this ledge, more than one hundred feet above the ground, toward a swinging electric cable. When all had arrived, they grabbed the cable simultaneously in an attempt to swing to the safety of the adjacent building. The cable snapped as they swung out and all six perished below.
A few windows down, on the same floor, a man and a woman appeared on the sill. The man kissed, then hugged the woman, threw her to the street and jumped himself. Both were killed. Just around the corner, from another window, a young girl, a man and a woman, and two other women with their arms wrapped around each other leaped to the ground together. The young girl was found alive after her fall and was rushed to the hospital where she died upon arrival.
A small group of men tried to make a human bridge between the burning building and the window of another building. They were successful in saving a number of women but eventually the weight of the women became too great and the bridge broke, the center man tumbling to the ground with a broken back.
The fire was extinguished within an hour and by 7:00 p.m., less than two hours after it started, firefighters were able to force their way up the stairs and into the burned floors. They reported that, “50 roasted bodies were found on the ninth floor alone.” The charred bodies of nineteen victims were found piled against locked doors and 25 more were found huddled together in a cloakroom. Each body, as it was found, was carefully lifted from the burned surroundings, wrapped in cloth and hoisted to the ground using a pulley system. They were then taken to one of a hundred wooden coffins lining the street. The bodies were then moved to the morgue at Bellevue Hospital or the Charities Pier morgue.
One unnamed reporter wrote in the New York Times that the “...remains of the dead, it is hardly possible to call them bodies, because that would suggest something human, and there was nothing human about most of these, were being taken in a steady stream to the morgue for identification.” Fire Chief Edward F. Croker, one of the first men to reenter the building following the fire left the building in obvious distress, stating that in all his years, he had never seen anything like what he had seen on those upper floors.
The police estimated that as many as 200,000 people; devastated family and friends, as well as the morbidly curious public, entered the makeshift morgue at the pier and filed past the over one hundred wooden coffins containing bodies that had been recovered. They walked past the bodies that were at least partially recognizable in the hope of finding a lost loved one. Tens of thousands were turned away by the police in an attempt to keep more of the general public away. Over forty human forms too badly burned to be recognizable, were covered with a white canvas tarp with the hope that they might be identified through trinkets, jewelry or articles of clothing.
Stories of unbelievable anguish were published in newspapers across the county. A young girl was identified by a family heirloom signet ring found clinging to the charred flesh of a badly burned body. A young woman screamed as she collapsed after identifying her fiancé by his ring, having become engaged only the night before. She asked if a watch had been found with his body. When she was given the watch, she opened it and “gazed upon her own portrait.” A man, having waited in line for over five hours, identified his daughters by their clothing. After collapsing with grief, he attempted to kill himself on the spot. He was restrained by police until he calmed down enough to continue looking for his wife, also lost in the fire. A man with a fresh burn on his cheek, identified his brother. He told the police that he and his brother had fought the fire, standing side by side, with buckets of water. A man who had barely escaped with his own life identified his fiancée by her engagement ring. In her hand, she still clutched her handbag, her weekly wages of $3 remained inside, intact. A sobbing brother stumbled away from the mangled bodies of his two sisters left propped up in their coffins to search for their mother. The fire took his entire family.
As a growing number of people became hysterical or suicidal, a makeshift hospital was set up at the pier to deal with this unexpected problem. Doctors and nurses from Bellevue Hospital worked for days trying to help keep these grieving family members from being added to the list of lives stolen by the fire.
Thirty-one victims remained unidentified after the last of the survivors claimed their family and friends. The Hebrew Free Burial Association paid for the burial of 23 of these victims in a special section of Mount Richmond Cemetery. The remaining eight bodies were interred in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn.
As the blaze began, the only safety measures within the Asch Building available to those still inside were 27 buckets of water and one fire escape that collapsed almost immediately. Most of the exits were locked and those that weren’t, opened inward so they remained closed under the crush of people pushing toward the doors.
It was not the 95 charred bodies found inside the building that so outraged the public, but rather the heaps of bodies along the sidewalk and rows of mostly young girls lying dead in the street. By the end, 53 people had jumped, fallen or were pushed from the upper floors and thousands of people were there to witness each one of them fall and strike the pavement. The average age of those killed in the fire was nineteen. The public outrage was carried like a wave across the country as reports and pictures of the tragedy appeared in newspapers everywhere.
The resulting public pressure proved to be too much to overcome and dramatic changes were in store for the existing fire codes and their enforcement in the workplace. The New York State Legislature formed the “Factory Commission” in 1911, which developed many requirements linked directly back to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire such as all exit doors must be left unlocked during operating hours and sprinklers were to be installed if a factory employed more than 25 people. The memories of the young women who perished in that terrible fire resulted in a major change in the way many people thought about protecting workers. Prior to the fire, the government left businesses alone regarding the safety of their workers. Afterwards, the government had little choice but to begin instituting sweeping safety laws that changed history for American workers.
In the end, no one was held accountable for the Triangle deaths. In December of 1911, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the Asch Building owners and Triangle Shirtwaist Company owners were charged and tried for manslaughter. Despite a mob of people outside the courthouse chanting “Murderers! Murderers!” the two were acquitted of all charges by the jury after only two hours of deliberation. Twenty-three individual civil suits for damages against the company were settled for an average of $75 per life lost.
Blanck and Isaac completed their association with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory by filing an insurance claim in excess of their losses, garnering them a profit from the fire of more than $60,000 -- a hefty sum in 1911. Blanck continued on in the clothing manufacturing business. He opened another factory on Fifth Avenue. In 1913, just two years after the Triangle fire, he was arrested for locking the exit door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20.
The Asch Building still stands at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, but its name has been changed to the Brown Building. No longer are the floors of that building home to sweatshops employing poor and desperate immigrant women and girls, overworked and underpaid. Today, the Brown Building is full of young university science students as it has become a part of the New York University as a science lab -- the same university that was located next door and provided a means of escape to nearly one hundred and fifty people fleeing the fire with the aid of many of the students.
On the corner of the building a plaque has been placed, commemorating the tragic events that took place on that site on March 25, 1911, and the lives lost that day. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire continues as a turning point in United States history.
There are other reminders of the fire for those who pay close enough attention. Even though the use of the building and the occupants have changed dramatically, bits and pieces of its history still linger, many of these believed to be supernatural. It is not uncommon for the smell of smoke to waft through the halls of the upper floors and more than once fire warnings have passed through the building. On occasion, people have reported a different kind of odor accompanying the smell of smoke. This odor can only be described as that of burning flesh -- then the odors simply disappear as quickly as they began.
Often, doors that are supposed to be locked are found unlocked, sometimes within minutes of being locked! Could it be that the spirit of someone lost in the fire is trying to keep the current occupants from meeting the same tragic fate by being trapped behind a locked door in an emergency?
A few people over the years have described a most peculiar experience. While sitting at a desk or workstation they have seen, out of the corner of their eye, something large flutter downward past their window. Upon going to the window to look down and see what it was, there is nothing there.
The most striking ghostly experience was related by “Susan” (not her real name), a secretary who worked in the building for many years. She explained that she had been working later than usual one evening and by the time she left to go home, most of the other employees and students had already left. As she walked out of the building, she noticed a young woman walk past her with a slight stagger and a dazed look on her face. She was very dirty and her hair and clothes appeared to be singed or burned. Susan called to her to see if she needed help but the young woman didn’t respond; she just kept walking and turned the corner. Susan, thinking that the woman might be injured or in trouble, ran after her but upon turning the corner, she was met by an empty sidewalk. The young woman had simply vanished.
We will never know for sure if these occurrences are directly related to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. However, it does appear that the most important thing is that we never forget what happened there, nor the lessons learned. We may even get a little reminder now and then --- just to make sure.
From the book AND HELL FOLLOWED WITH IT by Troy Taylor & Rene Kruse