The fire on Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York took place on March 25, 1911. The infamous disaster claimed the lives of 146 people, among which 123 women and 23 men, and proved to be the largest in the history of New York. In the present day, over a century later, people still remember the tragedy and discuss the reasons, the consequences, and most of all – the legacy of this industrial catastrophe, its influence on social and moral issues and what changes it inflicted upon the country.
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The factory was located on the top floors of the building in Washington Place, Manhattan. Over 500 workers were employed in the production of women’s garments, the so-called “shirtwaists”, most of them were young women from immigrant families. On the day the fire started, more than 200 people were inside the factory, including the managers of the company with their families. The building safety condition was poor; there were only two exits from the building, both of which happened to be unusable, one fire ladder and only one elevator in working condition. Investigation of the case discovered that there were no sprinkler systems in the building, which was probably a malicious intent of the managers to receive the fire insurance (Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 2009) and also “the manager attempted to use the fire hose to extinguish it, but was unsuccessful, as the hose was rotted and its valve was rusted shut” (Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 2009, par. 5). In less than 20 minutes, the fire ran through the floors of the factory, and nothing could have been done since the firemen’s ladders were not tall enough to reach the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the building, and their LifeNet was torn by the falling bodies of people who jumped out of the windows.
Speaking for the dead
The real tragedy of this accident lies in its background, as the majority of the victims were young girls who worked at a factory, in adverse working conditions, most of them were immigrants and only two of the victims aged above 40, while the youngest ones were only 14 years old (Von Drehle, 2012). The fire occurred in front of many witnesses, so there was still a lot of information about the disaster. Although everything ended within half an hour, the medical evidence and the eyewitness reports show that the deaths the victims suffered were painful – asphyxiation, burns, fractured bones and other injuries from jumping or falling from the upper floors of the building. The article named “Triangle Fire: A Half-Hour of Horror” presents the stories of the witnesses:
Witnesses reported seeing a man at a Washington Place window who, in a gallant effort to spare his co-workers from the licking flames, held out three women at arm’s length and dropped them, one by one, to their deaths. Then he kissed a fourth, released her to her death — and plunged to the sidewalk himself (Berger, 2011, par. 21).
Many of the workers had families, who later came to identify their family members to the morgue, for them, aside from the personal grief it also meant losing a source of income, which often was the only way to survive. Even more unfortunate was the court judgment on the case, in which the managers of the factory were found guilty of wrongful death and paid a penalty of $75 per victim, whereas the insurance company has paid them over $400 per casualty.
The fire on Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was not the first fatal accident, but it was the most lethal for New York of 1900-s, and it initiated a discussion, raising urgent questions about the rights of workers, specifically women, the rules of safety, and, most importantly, the moral background of the situation. Modern society, however, shows that these people’s lives were given for a good reason, although this tragedy can never be forgotten.
Berger, J. (2011). Triangle Fire: A Half-Hour of Horror. [Blog post]. Web.
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Triangle Shirt Factory Fire. (2009). Web.
Von Drehle, D. (2012). List of Victims. Web.