NYC’s Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Claimed 146, But Their Legacy Shines On


In 1911, a fire consumed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, killing mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls. On International Women's Day we're reminded their passing was not in vain.

By: Basil M. Russo, ISDA President

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was a true sweatshop. In cramped, hot and unsanitary conditions, young garment workers toiled for up to 12 hours a day, every day, for little in return.

Near closing time on March 25, 1911, 146 people lost their lives when a fire consumed the eighth floor of the Triangle factory, located in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square.

Most of the victims were Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls, aged 14 to 23, who recently arrived to the U.S.

For 90 years, it stood as the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City’s history.

No way out

The deadly fire broke out in a pile of rags, and the hose that could’ve doused the flames was rotted. The fire quickly spread and panic ensued.

The exit doors were locked, the elevators failed, the fire escape had collapsed, rescue ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the eighth floor, and nets–which were unrolled by firefighters to catch workers jumping 90 feet to the streets below–proved ineffective, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Terrified workers were burned alive, died from smoke inhalation, tumbled down elevator shafts and plummeted to their deaths.

When the smoke cleared, Blanck and Harris faced manslaughter charges and years in prison, but a jury acquitted them of all wrongdoing eight months after the fire.

To settle lawsuits against them, the craven businessmen eventually paid $75 in compensation to each victim’s family—a fraction of the $400 per death that they were paid by their insurer.

Factory fire hazards were well-known, but high levels of corruption in both the garment industry and city government generally ensured that no useful precautions were taken to prevent such catastrophes.

Blanck and Harris were accused of deliberately torching their workplaces before business hours to collect on the large fire insurance policies they purchased—a not uncommon practice at the time. While this was not the cause of the 1911 fire, it contributed to the tragedy, as the two men refused to install sprinkler systems and take other safety measures in case they needed to burn down their shops again, according to History.com.

A turning point

Two weeks after the fire, 80,000 people descended on Fifth Avenue to protest the working conditions that facilitated the disaster.

By October 1911, the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention law required that sprinkler systems be installed in all high-rise New York City factories. The disaster also helped galvanize the organized labor movement, and unite reform-minded politicians, like Sen. Robert F. Wagner–one of the legislative architects of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

To many, its horrors epitomize the extremes of 20th-century industrialism. And to Italian-Americans, the fire reflects the crushing discrimination and cultural challenges that immigrants endured, as they strived to create better lives for themselves and their families.

Rising from the ashes

On March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day, which honors women’s achievements, raises awareness against bias and takes action for equality.

But also on this day, we remember the young women and girls who lost their lives in the pursuit of a dream that would one day become a reality for the generations that followed.

To Italians of all ages, we ask that you keep the 146 in your hearts and minds, because if it weren’t for them–and those like them–there would not be a 20 million-strong Italian America of today.

Please read the names below, and remind all the women in your lives that hard work and perseverance will break glass ceilings and make big dreams come true.

Courtesy of the Cornell Kheel Center:

Make the pledge and become a member of Italian Sons and Daughters of America Today

 

 

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