March 25, 1911, marked the day a horrifying, particularly deadly fire burned through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
In 1911 the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located on the 8th, 9th and 10thfloors of the Asch Building. It was owned by Max Blanck and his partner Isaac Harris. The factory’s work force was mainly women employees, estimated at 500 total, each working six days per week.
On March 25, 1911, the children of Blanck and Harris were in the building, along with the work staff. It is alleged that the fire started from a lit match or a cigarette tossed into a bin of scraps. The 8th floor employees were expected to call workers on the 10th floor to give them warning as the building had no fire alarms or warning system.
The workers on the 9th floor had no forewarning until the actual fire was discovered. Although the building had two exits, the first was engulfed in flames and the second was locked. Several women were able to stay alive during the fire by heading up to the roof, while others escaped on elevators before they stopped operating.
The fire was soon out of control as there were no other options available for escape. At least 60 victims chose to jump; but, unfortunately, they did not survive the 80-foot drop. In the early 1900’s the New York Fire Department was ill-equipped to handle a fire of such magnitude. Even with a very adequate response time, their ladders only managed to reach Floor 6, while the fire was two stories above.
The numerous bodies of the women who had jumped to avoid the flames impeded the fire fighters’ ability to approach the building with their fire engines. To further complicate matters, a huge crowd had gathered to watch the carnage. It was an unbelievable sight to see. Becoming frenzied, many onlookers fainted or cried.
The estimated victim totaled 146, a few man but mostly women. The deceased victims were found to have suffered various severe burns, impact wounds and suffocation. Most of the bodies were claimed by surviving family members, while a total of six victims were never identified.
The two owners, Blanck and Harris, were brought up on charges for their part in locking the exit doors. The prosecution was unable to establish that they had knowledge of the locked exit doors; consequently, the owners were not held legally responsible. Two years later, however, they did lose a civil suit in which the members of the victims’ families were each awarded $75.00. When Blanck and Harris filed insurance claims, they received $60,000, which added up to $400 per fatality.
In 1913 charges were again brought against Blanck for locking a factory exit door while workers were inside. As punishment he was fined $20.Because of the completely avoidable tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the American Society of Safety Engineers was founded on October 14, 1911.