Triangle

by David Von Drehle

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Chapter 6 Summary

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Although it is impossible to say exactly how many people were on the ninth floor on the day of the fire, Van Drehle estimates that it was approximately 250, most of them women. One of these workers, Yetta Lubitz, was well practiced at leaving the factory promptly and was exiting the dressing rooms as most other workers were rising from their seats. She noticed that people were crowding by the Greene Street door and realized what was happening when she heard someone shout “Fire!” Von Drehle explains that “the warning and the blaze reached the ninth floor at nearly the same moment” and that the fire entered the air shaft from the eighth floor and burst open the windows above. Lubitz later recalled that many girls began running toward the fire escape, but she headed to the Washington Place doors instead, as “all the floors were with flames.” She quickly realized that the door was locked and retreated into the dressing rooms.

In a mere four minutes, the fire had made its way through the rear windows and burned the shirtwaists covering the examining tables, then rapidly began to spread across the entire loft. Lubitz followed a rush of workers out of the dressing rooms and ran toward the Greene Street door. While some seamstresses jumped across tables to try to distance themselves from the fire, Lubitz covered her face with her coat and ran through the flames. Assuming that the others had fled downstairs, she saw that the staircase was consumed by flames and thought there was no way out, until her friend Annie Gordon appeared and yelled for her to run to the roof, where they were rescued by New York University students. Lubitz later estimated that the entire ordeal took around twenty minutes, when in reality it lasted “no more than five or six minutes.”

The ninth floor had a simple layout, consisting of rows of sewing machines. One of the workers there was Ethel Monick, a sixteen-year-old “floor girl” who transported garments around the various factory work stations. Like Lubitz, she was ready to leave the factory when the closing bell rang at 4:45 p.m. and the cries of “fire” began. Almost immediately, the Greene Street door was crowded by fleeing workers, and Monick arrived at the Washington Place door just as the elevator doors were closing. When she could not open the door to the stairway, she called other girls over to help, who pushed her aside. As they did so, the second elevator arrived, and she found herself standing in front of its open doors: “So many people shoved in behind her that she was pressed face first against the back of the car. She couldn’t move. But she survived.” Van Drehle writes that “Such tiny strokes of fortune decided, repeatedly and remorselessly, who would live and who would die.”

Van Drehle recounts numerous testimonies of survivors, who all described scenes of panic, confusion, and terror. Those who attempted to leave through the fire escape were faced with an overcrowded and flimsy structure. Abe Gordon, a “belt boy” at the factory, recalled stepping from the “badly conceived, badly designed, and badly installed” fire escape and onto the sixth floor just as the structure collapsed. The overcrowded fire escape “groaned, twisted, and dumped its load of humans into the dark, smoky pit.” Shutters on the floors below becoming stuck meant that people could not make their way off the fire escape, and as the flames drew closer, it buckled under the weight and heat. The fire escape landing was a dead end above a basement...

(This entire section contains 1479 words.)

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skylight and spiked fence, a design that city officials had identified as dangerous but that had never been rectified.

Fire Chief Edward Worth arrived two minutes after the first alarm, at 4:47 p.m., and saw that the eighth floor was consumed in flames and the ninth-floor windows were “full of people.” He ordered water to be sprayed toward the ninth floor at high pressure, which resulted in only “enough to deliver a gentle rainfall.” Worth later explained that he wanted to prevent people from jumping by “cooling them off,” although he realized that he could do little for them. Worth said that, once the first person jumped, others quickly began to do the same.

By 4:50 p.m., the eleventh minute of the fire, “the options for survival were nearly gone,” with only two escape routes remaining. One was by using the Washington Place elevators, and operators Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo made numerous dangerous trips to the upper floors, filling the cars to at least double capacity and saving around 150 people, approximately half the total number of survivors. The only other escape route at this time was the Greene Street stairway to the roof, which was rapidly being closed off by fire: “To escape this way, a worker had to steel herself and run through a wall of flame.’’

Making a quick decision was essential, as the stories of Ida Nelson, Katie Weiner, and Fannie Lasner show. Whereas Nelson chose to go to the roof and urged the others to join her, Weiner and Lasner remained in the loft. Weiner tried to board an elevator car but was forced out by the crowd of people pushing their way inside. In a desperate attempt to survive, Weiner grabbed the central cable that ran through the elevator car and was pulled inside. Despite the fact that “her feet dangled through the door, banging violently on every landing,” Weiner survived, along with Ida Nelson, who had run to the roof—but “having made neither choice, Fannie Lasner was doomed.” Similarly, Kate Alterman ran to the roof, but her friend Margaret Schwartz died in the fire. Alterman recalled that the last time she saw her, Schwartz was screaming, “My God, I am lost!” as her hair caught fire.

By 4:52 p.m., there were no options left, and people began jumping down the elevator shaft, knowing that the car was unlikely to return. Some, like May Levantini and Sarah Cammerstein, were knocked unconscious but survived. However, most of those who jumped into the elevator shaft, or were pushed aside by the force of the crowd trying to escape the flames in the loft behind them, were killed. Those who jumped from the windows on the Washington Place side were over a hundred feet above the pavement, and attempts by the fire department to catch jumpers using life nets proved futile. The bodies fell with a great deal of force, and no one could survive falling from such a height, so “by 4:53 p.m., the nets were abandoned.”

Van Drehle estimates that “eighty or ninety workers were trapped in the loft” on the ninth floor at this point, and some of those who didn’t jump died near the Washington Place door, attempting to open it. On the Greene Street side of the building, people were not jumping but falling from the windows in flames:

The blaze pressed them back and back and back, into the burning window frames . . . they tried to stay in the loft even as they began to burn. Finally, the impulse to retreat overwhelmed everything else and they tumbled through the windows in horrible heaps.

Thirty-three bodies fell “in a shower,” and the last body fell at around 4:57 p.m. Van Drehle argues that if workers on the ninth floor had been warned of the fire three minutes earlier, they would likely have survived, having been able to unlock the Washington Place door and discover the route to the roof before it was blocked by flames. “Fire-safe factories had been a reality for more than a generation” at this point, and yet Blanck and Harris repeatedly collected substantial insurance after fires in their factories. They usually happened in the middle of the night, outside of working hours, and occurred as the slow seasons were approaching and unsold inventory needed to be disposed of. Although the owners had never been charged with arson, Van Drehle points out that Blanck and Harris had a “strange relationship with fire,” preparing for the possibility of fire by buying large insurance policies rather than taking safety measures. The author emphasizes that although it is highly unlikely the bosses would have set fire to their own factory while they and the relatives in their employ were inside, their attitude explains why there were no sprinklers or other safety measures to be found—they could not protect their factory against fire “if they thought they might need to burn it sometime.”

Firefighters finally had the eighth-floor blaze under control by about 5 p.m. By 5:15 p.m., the fire was under control on all three floors, but the damage—to both property and life—was extensive. In total, 146 people died, making the Triangle fire the deadliest workplace disaster in New York until the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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