Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top three floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company (a typical sweat-factory in Manhattan). Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The victims and their families, the people below who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.
Many of the Triangle factory workers were women, some as young as 14 years old. They were, for the most part, recent Italian and Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States with their families to seek a better life. Instead, they faced lives of grinding poverty and horrifying working conditions. As recent immigrants struggling with a new language and culture, these poor workers were forced into jobs of terrible conditions and wages.
The Triangle Fire tragically illustrated that fire inspections and safety precautions were incredibly inadequate at the time. Shockingly, the workers believed that they were deliberately locked in -- owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials.
After the disaster, labor unions like the International Ladies’ Garments Workers’ Union (ILGWU) fought for better working conditions and safety precautions. They forced factory owners to allow breaks during the workday and to install emergency sprinkler systems in the factories. Despite some positive changes to labor laws in the U.S., injustices and abuses continue in this country and elsewhere around the world.
Interview: September 16, 1951
I worked on the 9th floor for a little less than one year at the time of the fire. I was an operator and sleeve setter on section work. I worked about 4-5 weeks without pay, then I began to make about $3 or $4. a week from the inside contractor who took me up. I must have been a child at that time because I remember that when the inspector used to come they would push me into the closet to hide. I worked in the center of the shop on the side where the windows were. We went to the door to leave and all of a sudden somebody was hollering "Fire". Before we had a chance to look around everything was burning. I ran into the staircase hall but the flames were coming up from downstairs. I tried to get through but I could not. There was too much heat. I ran back into the shop. I don't know where it came from but I found a roll of lawn piece. I wrapped it around and around and around me until only my face showed out. Then I ran right into the fire in the stairway hall. I ran upstairs. I gasped for breath. The lawn caught fire as I ran. I kept turning and twisting while I was running because the burning lawn was on me. I suffered first-degree burns. By the time I passed the 10th floor and got out on the roof, I had left almost all of the lawn in ashes behind me -- one little piece I still held under my arm. That was the arm that got burned. I remember how, with the help of students, we put boards across from one building to the other. That is how we were saved - during the whole time I didn't get panicky. The way I remember it, I knew every minute, just what I was doing. They took me to the hospital. I remember how they prepared the bed for me but when they weren't around I sneaked out of the hospital and ran home because my mother was sick and I was afraid of what might happen to her if I didn't come home. My father had already come home to find me missing, but he kept his worry a secret from my mother. When I was called as a witness I was asked whether the door was open or closed. I answered the door was locked closed, that there was only one way out because they had to see if anybody was taking anything out of the shop.