The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
At 4:45 pm the bell rang signalling that the workday was done. The girls in the light brown and terra cotta Asch building, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in lower Manhattan, had put in some overtime. The clothiers on the lower floors had closed shop at noon this Saturday but the girls, mostly Italian, Yiddish and German, on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors could use the extra money over the $6 a week they normally made. They assembled women's tailored shirts which were copied from the men's styles. The girls worked for Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. The name of the business was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The date was March 25, 1911.
As the girls were gathering their belongings and putting on their coats someone yelled "Fire!"
Down below on the street, people started to notice the smoke billowing from the 8th floor. One of the bystanders observed a bolt of cloth come flying out the window and hit the pavement. Instinctively, he remarked that Harris was trying to save his best material. As the people on the street moved closer, out flew another bolt. It was then that the realization hit them that it wasn't bolts of cloth at all but bodies plummeting to the pavement below.
By the time Engine Company 72 arrived from 12th Street (only 6 blocks away) they had trouble maneuvering their hose wagon into position since they didn't want to grind the already six limp forms lying in the street. The bodies were still falling. The distraught fire fighters pulled out a life net and attempted to catch one girl but three more hurled themselves immediately after the first and all four bounced out hitting the concrete. A policeman and fireman held a horse blanket and tried to catch the next hurling body. The blanket split in two and the body hit the pavement -- dead.
Back inside, on the 8th floor, feeding on cotton fabric and then climbing to the hanging overhead garments, the fire took little time to race out of control. The foreman and male tailors tried desperately to douse the licking flames with the 27 water buckets that were available. The efforts proved to be futile and the 275 girls panicked in desperation and headed for the two passenger elevators and the stairway at the west end of the loft. The crush of women at the door leading to the stairway slammed it closed. The doors in this building opened in rather than out.
Joe Zitto and Joe Gaspar, the elevator operators, brought elevators to the 8th floor and the girls fought frantically to get on. Each car only held 10. These two cars, making approximately 15 to 20 trips each, brought about 12 to 15 havoc-stricken passengers down to street level -- their clothing still smoldering. Finally, the girls upstairs were able to open the stairway door and raced down the stairs to street level -- most of them with their garments almost completely burned from their bodies.
Hundreds were still trapped upstairs. Three male cutters formed a human chain from the Shirtwaist's 8th floor window to the adjacent window next door. Some girls were able to cross over on the backs of the three. But then the men lost their balance and all three souls fell 80 feet to join the already growing number on the pavement.
Meanwhile, Engine Company 33 had arrived from Great Jones Street. To add to the horror, the stream of water from their hoses would only reach as far as the 7th floor! The aerial ladders only reached between the 6th and 7th floors. Girls were now jumping, trying to grab the top of the ladder. All missed -- diving to their deaths. Some of the girls were jumping now five at a time with fire streaking from their hair as they hurled themselves into eternity. They hit the glass sidewalk vault lights and crashed through to the basement, water pouring on top of them. Now there were literally thousands of spectators behind the police lines unable to believe what they were witnessing.
At another window, a man and a woman kissed and hurled themselves into the air. One girl jumped holding a fire bucket. Another one tossed her purse, her hat and then herself.
Interns, arriving in horse drawn ambulances from St. Vincent's, Bellevue and New York hospitals were only able to tag the broken bodies and cover them with tarpaulins. The 10th floor, which was where the showroom and the pressing of the shirtwaists took place, first received the message of a fire over the teleautograph which relayed messages between floors. At first, they thought it to be a prank -- but they soon smelled the smoke. Realizing that they could not go down, they climbed onto the roof. Some members and students from New York University Law School lowered a ladder to the horror-stricken girls. (The Triangle Building was about 12 feet lower than its adjacent structure.) Almost 150 reached safety this way.