13 Tragic Oversights That Led To The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred on March 25, 1911 in the Asch Building, Greenwich Village, New York City. It killed 146 employees of the garment shop, most either recent immigrants or the children of recent immigrants who had no choice but to work in sweatshops. Of the victims, 123 were female, 23 male. The aftermath of the fire proved unions are a good thing, as it set in motion a number of protections for future garment workers. The fire was a catalyst for change, and an example of industrialization gone wrong. It could have been prevented, had anyone at city hall - or any of the shirtwaist factory owners - cared enough to change the deplorable conditions of the building. Instead, what occurred was one of the worst factory fires in the United States. 

The fire wasn't an isolated incident by any means; rather, it was one in a long series of historical disasters in part attributable to hubris, greed, and lack of oversight. Such man-made disasters, including those involving blimps, were common in the 19th and 20th centuries, and often resulted in a chaotic aftermath. As for historical fires in the US, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is unequivocally one of the worst, particularly since the owners of the factory were found not guilty of any criminal charges. 

Photo: Metaweb / GNU Free Documentation License

  • The Place Was A Tinderbox Waiting To Burn

    The Place Was A Tinderbox Waiting To Burn
    Photo: Photographer Unknown / Cornell University / Public Domain

    The workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory could smoke on the job as long as it didn't interfere with productivity. The NYC Fire Marshal, investigating the cause of the fire, came to the conclusion that a lit match or cigarette was to blame. All it took was a wayward flame landing in one a bin of flammable scrap fabric. The factory floors were filled with flammable material, including scraps of fabric and wooden baskets. 

  • The Fire Spread Very Quickly

    The Fire Spread Very Quickly
    Photo: Bain News Service / Public Domain

    According to survivor accounts (many escaped to the roof and onto adjacent buildings, others got out before the elevator became untenable), the fire started around five minutes before the 12-hour work day was over. It spread very fast; four different fire alarms were triggered within 15 minutes.

    One of the two stairwells in the building was inaccessible within three minutes. The filth and clutter of the factory floor helped the fire spread so quickly some workers were found still seated at their stations, charred to death, when all was said and done. 

  • The Factory's Hose Was Rusted Shut

    The Factory's Hose Was Rusted Shut
    Photo: Brown Brothers / Cornell University / Public Domain

    Not long after the blaze started, a manager attempted to put it out with a hose located on the factory floor. The hose was old and rotted, its valve rusted shut; it did nothing. 

  • Beyond A Broken Hose, There Was Nothing But A Few Buckets Of Water To Right The Blaze

    Beyond A Broken Hose, There Was Nothing But A Few Buckets Of Water To Right The Blaze
    Photo: Brown Brothers / Cornell University / Public Domain

    Fire extinguishers existed in the early 20th century (they were invented in England in 1723), and therefore could have been on hand in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but no dice. Once the hose failed to turn on, the only only thing left to fight the fire was a few buckets of water, which did nothing. 

  • Only One Elevator Functioned Properly

    Only One Elevator Functioned Properly
    Photo: The Pensacola Journal / Public Domain

    It's never a good idea to take an elevator when the building's on fire. However, in the case of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, it would have helped save at least a few lives. It's also a testament to the poor conditions of the building that only one of four elevators was working properly at the time of the fire, and that elevator was located down a very narrow hallway.

    When the fire broke out, garment workers, most of them women and girls aged 16 to 23, lined up to wait for the one working elevator, but it could only fit 12 people at a time, and, despite making multiple trips up and down, couldn't save most. Some of those waiting jumped to their deaths down the elevator shaft when it failed to re-appear. 

  • The Factory Floor Was A Cramped Nightmare

    The Factory Floor Was A Cramped Nightmare
    Photo: Lewis Hine / Cornell University / Public Domain

    Sweatshops are known for hazardous working conditions, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was no exception. To maximize profit, owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck crammed as many laborers as possible into small spaces. The factory floor occupied the top three stories of the Asch Building, and was a network of large machines and long tables arranged in a chaotic and tight-fitting maze.

    The arrangement of the three floors occupied by the factory made maneuvering difficult during a regular work day. Once the fire broke out, the garment workers panicked, causing chaos. Avenues of escape were blocked off and workers were trapped.