Out of the flames of a century-old tragedy

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03/14/2011

We’re approaching a tragic and historic anniversary on March 25, 2011—marking the day 100 years ago when a fire at a New York City garment factory killed 146 workers, mostly women and young girls, and gave birth to today’s national fire safety code. If you want to understand the significance of that fire, then and now, read the NFPA Journal’s cover story for March/April 2011.

“What’s changed — and what hasn’t — in the 100 years since the Triangle Waist Co. fire,” is the name of that comprehensive in-depth article  by executive editor Scott Sutherland.

I’ll quote some key passages here to give you an idea of the magnitude of the tragedy and its significance today.

The story describes how on March 25, 1911, “the Triangle Waist Co., a maker of women’s blouses, caught fire and burned in New York City, killing 146 and injuring scores. More than 60 died when they jumped from the building’s upper floors, their final moments witnessed by thousands of horrified onlookers. Triangle remains the deadliest accidental industrial building fire in the nation’s history. It also helped spark profound change in American society, including sweeping reforms that included the adoption and enforcement of a host of workplace safety measures. The development and creation of NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, can be traced directly to the Triangle fire.”

“Of the dead, 129 were women and girls. More than 60 of the victims where teenagers; the youngest were 14.”

“In 1911, technology and practices that could have protected workers — enclosed stairways, fire walls, fire doors, automatic sprinkler systems, fire drills — existed, and in some cases were required, but few building owners bothered to implement them. Design shortcuts were common; the law called for a structure the size of the  [10-story] Asch Building [where the Triangle company was located on the top three floors] to have three stairways accessing each floor, but the architect had received an exemption from the Building Department and provided just two, along with an exterior fire escape at the rear of the building that descended only as far as the second floor. The regulatory emphasis was on constructing buildings that could withstand fire, not protecting their inhabitants. “My building is fireproof,” insisted Joseph P. Asch of his namesake building, which he’d constructed in 1901, to newspaper reporters the day after the fire. He also insisted that the building complied with all New York City codes — though as reformers, journalists, and a growing chorus of politicians were already pointing out, Asch’s claims of compliance were far from a guarantee of a fire-safe building.”

“In 1911, there were no laws requiring fire sprinklers or fire drills in New York City factory buildings, many of them as tall or taller than the Asch Building.” The story says that “by September, 1909, the city numbered 612,000 workers in 30,000 factories, and that by early 1911 about half that total number was employed above the seventh floor. The fire department’s ladders and hoses were generally only effective up to the sixth floor.”

"Eight months after the fire, Triangle’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were acquitted by a jury on charges of manslaughter. The Triangle Waist Co. moved to another building, and in 1913 an inspector in New York City’s newly formed Bureau of Fire Prevention found a door to the factory locked with a chain, during working hours and with 150 workers inside. Blanck was arrested and fined $20. That same year, a garment factory fire in Binghamton, New York, killed 35 workers, drawing immediate comparisons to Triangle.”

“By then, though, the spectacle of Triangle had touched off an intense period of reform. By 1914, the state of New York had enacted dozens of laws that reshaped factory safety, including fire safety, and became a national model. At the urging of a young reformer named Frances Perkins, who would go on to become Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt, NFPA expanded its mission from protecting buildings to protecting the people who worked in them, and undertook efforts that would eventually result in the creation of the Building Exits Code, the precursor to the Life Safety Code.”

Today, Sutherland writes, “the [Greenwich Village] building is still there, or at least most of it. The Asch Building has since been incorporated into a larger building housing classrooms and offices for New York University, but the facades along Washington Place and Greene Street look much as they did a century ago. On March 25, thousands will gather at the building to commemorate the fire. They’ll imagine the corner as it might have looked in 1911, and they’ll imagine people poised high in the windows, flames billowing behind them.”