On March 25, 1911, fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory which occupied the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York City. It took the lives of 146 people who couldn’t escape. Those who didn’t jump to escape the flames died of the fire or smoke inhalation. They ranged in age from 14 to 43 and were mostly immigrant working women. Many of them had taken part in the garment workers strike of the previous year, but the management of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had refused to allow the unions into their shop.
The fire began on the 8th floor and an employee was able to warn the owners on the 10th floor via telephone, but there was no fire alarm in the building and no way to warn people on the 9th floor. By the time they realized the situation, the fire had already reached them. People escaped through the two freight elevators while they continued to operate, but the stairways leading from the building were blocked, one by the fire and the other by a locked door. Many people fell to their deaths when the fire escape pulled away from the building or when they jumped rather than burn to death. Although the fire department arrived quickly after being notified by a bystander, their ladders didn’t reach beyond the 6th floor.
In response to the tradegy, a Committee on Public Safety was formed, led by Frances Perkins, the Factory Investigating Commission created by the New York State Legislature, and the American society of Safety Enginners. Legislation followed to mandate improved labor laws, fireproofing, building access, as well as alarm systems, fire extinguishers and sprinklers. Over all, sixty new laws were put into place making New York “one of the most progressive states in terms of labor reform.”
Triangle Fire: An American Experience documentary