by David Von Drehle

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What was the 1911 Triangle Fire and its aftermath?

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The Triangle Fire of 1911 was a workplace disaster in which a fire broke out within a factory and burned the building down. Because there were no safety tools or sprinklers, the fire was devastating and killed more workers than previous workplace incidents. The factory owners were acquitted of manslaughter, but the trial allowed greater focus on providing better working conditions, which eventually lead to new safety regulations.

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The Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory was the largest blouse factory in New York City when it burned down in 1911, killing 145 workers who were primarily young, female immigrants. In fact, most did not even speak English.

The fire was unlike other workplace disasters because it killed more workers than any other. Their deaths could have been prevented had the factory owners attended to maintaining better safety conditions. The workers were cramped into tight spaces. In addition to the difficult work conditions, many of the young women worked twelve-hour days with no days off, earning much less than a man would have earned.

The factory was located on the top floors of a tall building, and only one elevator was fully operational when the fire broke out. It held only 12 people and the elevator operator was able to make only four trips to rescue the factory workers before the elevator went out of service due to the intensive heat within the building. Moreover, in order to reach that elevator, the workers had to walk down a narrow corridor, meaning that only a few could go single file.

The doors to the two stairways were locked from the outside and the fire escape was narrow, which meant that only a handful of the workers could escape via that route.

The fire started in a rag bin and could have been extinguished if the factory had appropriate safety tools. However, the fire hose that the factory had did not work, as the valve was rusted shut. The fire soon began to spread, particularly since the factory owners had refused to install sprinkler systems.

Panic ensued. Many of the women waiting for the elevator jumped down the shaft to escape, only to be crushed. Those who tried to escape via the stairwells found the exit door at the bottom of the stairs locked.

When firefighters arrived, their ladders only reached as high as the seventh floor, but the fire was one floor above. Their net was ripped by the weight of too many girls jumping out of windows to save themselves.

A grand jury indicted the factory owners, but a jury acquitted them after the defense showed that there was reasonable doubt that they knew that the doors were locked during workday hours. According to the author:

Isaac Harris and Max Blanck dropped limply into their chairs as their wives began sobbing quietly just behind them.

However, as a result of the fire, national attention focused on the dangerous sweatshop conditions that many low skilled workers endured in America’s factories. This, in turn, led to the strengthening of unions, as well as to new laws and regulations to protect them.

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