The weather was pretty much like today on March 25th 1911. It was one of the first beautiful days in spring that year and lots of people were gathering at Washington Square. It was Saturday afternoon at precisely 4:40 when smashing windows and horrific screaming changed the scenery instantly.
At the time then, most of the garment producers within New York were located in that area around Washington Square. So was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, in the early 1900s the most successful blouse producer in America. More than 600 people were working for the owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris in their Greenwich Village headquarter. Most of them 16 to 23 year old European immigrants, basically women. Lots of them were on duty at this fateful Saturday afternoon in 1911 and waiting for the closing bell that usually rang at 4:45. Only five minutes before they would have been off for the weekend, a gruesome fire inferno broke out in the eight floor of the ten story brownstone on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street.
Within minutes the fire was all over the place. Most of the dressmakers in the tenth floor could get out of the building by climbing through a hatch up to the roof where they later were saved by firefighters. But for most of the young women in the eight and ninth floor was no possible escape. The elevators in the building didn’t work any longer since the fire damaged the mechanic seriously. While some of the workers from the eight floor could escape through the staircase the tailors in the ninth floor where completely trapped. Somebody locked the door to the staircase there. As it was discovered later, the owners themselves did it to avoid theft. With no possible way out the dressmakers rescue depended on the firefighters. But their turntable-ladders were literally a dead end too, since they only reached between the sixth and seventh floor. While the fire got worse and worse lots of the young women began to leap out of the windows which implied the certain death since there were no reasonable life nets either.
Dead bodies on the pavement of Green Street. Nobody of the leaping women survived.
After less than 20 minutes the inferno was over and 146 people had died. 123 were young women. Although the tragedy paralyzed New Yorkers at the time, they began to change the unacceptable working conditions in the manufacturing companies around the city. Three month after the incident, John Alden Dix, the 38th Governor of New York, passed a bill that started the labor movement and finally established the “Fair Labor Standards Act” in 1938. In a sense the fire was a huge and gruesome tragedy that saved thousands and thousands life’s in later years.
The brownstone where the Triangle Shirtwaist Company ran their business in 1911 still exists. Meanwhile it’s part of NYU. Right in these minutes where you’ve been reading this short abstract, hundreds of people gather in front of the building to commemorate the victims of the fire that happened 100 years ago today.
Editor’s note: I just wrote about the incident in detail for German News Magazine Spiegel-Online. Click in and find more details about the Fire that changed America.