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The Triangle Shirtwaste Fire

On 25 March 1911, 275 people were employed sewing women’s shirts at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in downtown New York City. Most were the teenage daughters of a recent wave of Jewish and Italian immigrants, and were their families’ breadwinners.

As they were leaving, something, a cigarette perhaps, ignited cotton fabric laying about the building’s eighth floor. The conflagration spread rapidly amid panicked shouts of “Fire!”

Many workers had no chance. Safety measures consisted of 27 water buckets and a rickety fire escape. Doors were locked to prevent theft – and keep out union organizers. Unlocked doors opened from the inside making egress impossible. Firefighters responded immediately, but were powerless because fire hoses and ladders only reached the sixth floor.

The fire escapes on the sides of the buildings collapsed as many of the workers tried to flee.  As a result, the women were trapped in the burning building with no way out.   People on the streets watched helplessly as workers jumped from higher floors. Disbelieving onlookers watched as blankets, spread to catch people jumping, ripped apart unable to support the weight of falling victims. A reporter described bodies lying everywhere: “Thud – dead; thud – dead; thud – dead; thud – dead. Sixty-two thud – deads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant.”

No one alive today remembers the horror. Rose Freedman, the last survivor of the fire, died in 2001. She survived by cannily following the company executives, who knew where to escape. Ultimately, 146 people died; their average age, 19. It was a half-hour that changed America.

Coffins were requisitioned from local hospitals because the morgue ran out. Hundreds of grief-stricken relatives rushed to nearby police stations looking for survivors, then to the morgue to identify those failing to return home. Many bodies were unidentifiable.

The tragedy created public outrage, forcing the New York Legislature to address workplace safety and create a Fire Department Prevention Division to eliminate fire hazards in the city’s sweatshops. In addition, laws were instituted providing for adequate escape routes, sprinkler systems, fire drills and doors that could not be locked during working hours and had to open outwards. Other states and the federal government soon followed suit.

Until that point, labour unions struggled for survival in the heady capitalism of the booming US economy. Because of the fire, workers now looked to unions for workplace protection. Worker safety instantly became a top union priority, prompting a dramatic rise in membership nationwide.

The Samuel Gompers memorial in Chicago, Illinois

The Samuel Gompers memorial in Chicago, Illinois

One hero stood out: Samuel Gompers, born in London, emigrated to New York and became head of the American Federation of Labour (AFL). After the fire, his efforts to make New York’s sweatshops safer helped make him a national icon to union organisers. (A life-size statue of “The Grand Old Man of Labour” stands in my hometown of Chicago in a park bearing his name.)

In the days that ensued after the fire, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, then one of the country’s largest unions, and one of the few with primarily female membership, organized a funeral march attended by 100,000. Their involvement provided new beginning for unions and union/government cooperation over safety and compensation laws that would prove a model to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, 20 years later.

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