No One Was Responsible

On the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Manhattan sits the Asch Building. Made of iron and steel and constructed in 1900, the ten-story building was named after its owner–Joseph J. Asch–and, upon its completion, offered office and factory space for several of New York’s rising industries.

In 1911, the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a garment-producing business owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. The men were notoriously hardline bosses, putting profit above all else. The factory employed around 500 workers, most of them female immigrants who spoke little English and were desperate for any job that would put a roof over their heads and food on their tables. And the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory did that–but just barely. Most of the women worked 12-hour days, 7 days a week, and made only $15 a week. Even though just a few years earlier, in 1909, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led a strike demanding higher pay and shorter and more predictable hours, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was one of the few manufacturers who resisted, hiring police as thugs to imprison the striking women, and paying off politicians to look the other way. But, so desperate were the women employed by Blanck and Issac, that most of them chose to stay anyway.

Some money was better than none at all.

But it wasn’t just the pay. Working conditions inside the Asch Building were poor; a sweatshop, in fact, by today’s standards. Women sometimes had to supply their own needles, thread, irons and sometimes, even their own sewing machines, often putting them further in debt even before their wages began. They sat elbow-to-elbow, back-to-back at crowded tables for their long shifts. There were no bathrooms. Four elevators provided access to the factory floors but, in 1911, only one was fully operational and the workers had to file down a long, narrow corridor in order to reach it. There were two stairways down to the street but both were locked during operating hours to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks. Although fires were common in garment factories due to the mass of highly flammable materials inside–the Triangle factory itself caught fire twice in 1902 and the Diamond Waist Company factory (also owned by Blanck and Harris) also burned twice, in 1907 and in 1910–the floors had no alarm system or sprinklers in place. Their suppression system consisted of a fire hose, rotted and with a rusted-shut valve, and water buckets.

Water buckets that, on the afternoon of March 25, 1911, were empty.

Although smoking was banned in the factory, workers were known to sometimes sneak cigarettes. It was on one such discarded prohibited cigarette that court testimony later placed the plan for a fire that broke out on the factory floor shortly before 4 pm. Because of the abundance of cloth, flames spread rapidly and panic quickly ensued among the 500 workers. However, the cramped conditions and bulky equipment trapped many of those trying to escape. Those fortunate enough to reach stairwells found the doors locked; the one working elevator could only hold twelve people at a time, and it was only able to make 4 trips before breaking down because of the heat. Even the fire escape bent under the weight of workers trying to flee.

Firefighters arrived within minutes, only to discover their ladders were too short to reach the 8th floor. A net was unfurled to catch those willing to jump, but it too ripped under the weight of multiple bodies, rendering it useless. People on the street as well as those who had managed to escape to roof and, subsequently, to other buildings watched in horror as workers, faced with an impossible choice, flung themselves to their deaths from the building in desperation. The fire was so intense, within 18 minutes, it was all over. Forty-nine workers had burned to death or been suffocated by smoke, 36 were dead in the elevator shaft and 58 died from jumping to the sidewalks. With two more dying later from their injuries, a total of 146 people were killed by the fire.

But winds of change swirled from the ashes.

An estimated 350,000 people joined in a massive funeral procession for the fire’s victims. On April 5, just a few short weeks after the fire, workers’ unions set up a march down Fifth Avenue to protest the conditions that had led to the fire. It was attended by 80,000 people. Although Blanck and Harris were eventually found not guilty of manslaughter in an ensuing trial, the pair had to be escorted out a side door of the courthouse to avoid an angry crowd.

Workers had had enough and people, it seemed, were finally willing to listen.

Although reprehensible, Blanck and Harris’s actions hadn’t been illegal. And that fault lay with the government, which had done little to ensure safe workplaces and hadn’t been prepared for the fire. In New York, a Committee for Public Safety was created, which could identify specific problems and lobby for new legislation. Legislators also created the Factory Investigating Commission, to “investigate factory conditions in this and other cities and to report remedial measures of legislation to prevent hazard or loss of life among employees through fire, unsanitary conditions, and occupational diseases.” Over the next few years, it investigated thousands of workplaces and ended up creating  thirty-eight new laws regulating labor in New York state mandating everything from better building access and the availability of fire extinguishers to better eating and toilet facilities for workers.

The Asch building still stands today, the fire having only gutted a few of the floors. The building was refurbished and New York University began to use the eighth floor of the building for a library and classrooms in 1916. Philanthropist Frederick Brown later bought the building and subsequently donated it to the university in 1929, when it was renamed the Brown Building. It was listed on the National Register of Historical Places and named a National Historical Landmark in 1991. In 2002, the building was incorporated into the Silver Center for Arts and Science and, a year later, was designated a New York City landmark. Plans are underway to enact a permanent memorial to the victims of the fire there.

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