"Eyewitness at the Triangle"
Published in the Milwaukee Journal, March 27, 1911
"On the sidewalk lay heaps of broken bodies."
On the afternoon of March 25, 1911, Milwaukee Journal reporter William G. Shepherd was walking near the corner of Washington and Greene Streets in lower Manhattan in New York City when he noticed smoke coming from a ten-story building. Reacting with a journalist's instincts, he came closer to watch.
Shepherd picked up a telephone and dictated his story to United Press, which provided news stories via telegraph to newspapers around the country that did not have their own reporters in distant cities.
What Shepherd saw was a fire at the Triangle Shirt-waist Company, which manufactured women's blouses. The company took up the top three floors of the ten-story Asch building. There, about five hundred women, most of them young Jewish immigrants (as young as thirteen), worked at sewing machines. (A shirtwaist is a woman's blouse with a collar designed to look something like a man's shirt. It is worn above a separate skirt.)
Shortly after 4:30 in the afternoon, a fire broke out on the eighth floor, its cause unknown. The volume of loosefabric in the factory helped the fire spread rapidly. As the women rushed to the freight elevator, stairs, and the fire escape, those on the ninth floor found that the doors had been locked. Then the fire escape collapsed from the weight of so many people on it, eliminating a route to safety.
Firemen were hindered at first by bodies of women who had leapt to their deaths. In addition, fire ladders went only as high as the sixth floor. Firemen held nets for women to jump into, but the netting broke under the impact of several women jumping at the same time.
At the end of the afternoon, it was determined that 146 women had died in just fifteen minutes. Many were killed by leaping through windows and falling to their deaths, as Shepherd's eyewitness account relates. Others were burned to death on the ninth floor. It was the deadliest factory fire in New York history up to that day.
Things to remember while reading "Eyewitness at the Triangle":
- At the time of the fire, New York City did not strictly enforce fire safety regulations. Many factory owners resisted the idea of such regulations and questioned the city's right to impose them. Workers in the city were employed in a variety of buildings, including former tenement houses that were vulnerable to the effects of fire.
- The conditions inside the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory were not unusual for that era. In the decade preceding the deadly fire, the so-called muckrakers (a group of journalists who specialized in uncovering abuses and scandal in industry; see entry) had pointed out dozens of examples of unhealthy, dangerous working conditions. Former President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; in office, 1901–09), who would run in 1912 as the candidate of the Progressive Party (sometimes called the Bull Moose Party; see entry), was one politician who pushed for more government control over businesses.
"Eyewitness at the Triangle"
I was walking through Washington Square when a puff of smoke issuing from the factory building caught my eye. I reached the building before the alarm was turned in. I saw every feature of the tragedy visible from outside the building. I learned a new sound—a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.
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. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet.
The first ten thud—deads shocked me. I looked up—saw that there were scores of girls at the windows. The flames from the floor below were beating in their faces. Somehow I knew that they, too,must come down, and something within me—something that I didn't know was there—steeled me.
I even watched one girl falling. Waving her arms, trying to keep her body upright until the very instant she struck the sidewalk, she was trying to balance herself. Then came the thud—then a silent, unmoving pile of clothing and twisted, broken limbs.
As I reached the scene of the fire, a cloud of smoke hung over the building.… There was a living picture in each window—four screaming heads of girls waving their arms.
"Call the firemen," they screamed—scores of them. "Get a ladder," cried others. They were all as alive and whole and sound as were we who stood on the sidewalk. I couldn't help thinking of that. We cried to them not to jump. We heard the siren of a fire engine in the distance. The other sirens sounded from several directions.
"Here they come," we yelled. "Don't jump; stay there."
One girl climbed onto the window sash. Those behind her tried to hold her back. Then she dropped into space. I didn't notice whether those above watched her drop because I had turned away. Then came that first thud. I looked up, another girl was climbing onto the window sill; others were crowding behind her. She dropped. I watched her fall, and again the dreadful sound. Two windows away two girls were climbing onto the sill; they were fighting each other and crowding for air. Behind them I saw many screaming heads. They fell almost together, but I heard two distinct thuds. Then the flames burst out through the windows on the floor below them, and curled up into their faces.
The firemen began to raise a ladder. Others took out a life net and, while they were rushing to the sidewalk with it, two more girls shot down. The firemen held it under them; the bodies broke it; the grotesque simile of a dog jumping through a hoop struck me. Before they could move the net another girl's body flashed through it. The thuds were just as loud, it seemed, as if there had been no net there. It seemed to me that the thuds were so loud that they might have been heard all over the city.
As I looked up I saw a love affair in the midst of all the horror. A young man helped a girl to the window sill. Then he held her out, deliberately away from the building and let her drop. He seemed cool and calculating. He held out a second girl the same way and let her drop. Then he held out a third girl who did not resist. I noticed that. They were as unresisting as if he were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity. Undoubtedly he saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames, and his was only a terrible chivalry.
Then came the love amid the flames. He brought another girl to the window. Those of us who were looking saw her put her arms about him and kiss him. Then he held her out into space and dropped her. But quick as a flash he was on the window sill himself. His coat fluttered upward—the air filled his trouser legs. I could see that he wore tan shoes and hose. His hat remained on his head.
Thud—dead, thud—dead—together they went into eternity. I saw his face before they covered it. You could see in it that he was a real man. He had done his best.
We found out later that, in the room in which he stood, many girls were being burned to death by the flames and were screaming in an inferno of flame and heat. He chose the easiest way and was brave enough to even help the girl he loved to a quicker death, after she had given him a goodbye kiss. He leaped with an energy as if to arrive first in that mysterious land of eternity, but her thud—dead came first.
The firemen raised the longest ladder. It reached only to the sixth floor. I saw the last girl jump at it and miss it. And then the faces disappeared from the window. But now the crowd was enormous, though all this had occurred in less than seven minutes, the start of the fire and the thuds and deaths.
I heard screams around the corner and hurried there. What I had seen before was not so terrible as what had followed. Up in the [ninth] floor girls were burning to death before our very eyes. They were jammed in the windows. No one was lucky enough to be able to jump, it seemed. But, one by one, the jams broke. Down came the bodies in a shower, burning, smoking—flaming bodies, with disheveled hair trailing upward. They had fought each other to die by jumping instead of by fire.
The whole, sound, unharmed girls who had jumped on the other side of the building had tried to fall feet down. But these fire torches, suffering ones, fell inertly, only intent that death should come to them on the sidewalk instead of in the furnace behind them.
On the sidewalk lay heaps of broken bodies. A policeman later went about with tags, which he fastened with wires to the wrists of the dead girls, numbering each with a lead pencil, and I saw him fasten tag no. 54 to the wrist of a girl who wore an engagement ring. A fireman who came downstairs from the building told me that there were at least fifty bodies in the big room.… Another fireman told me that more girls had jumped down an air shaft in the rear of the building. I went back there, into the narrow court, and saw a heap of dead girls.…
The floods of water from the firemen's hose that ran into the gutter were actually stained red with blood. I looked upon the heap of dead bodies and I remembered these girls were the shirtwaist makers. I remembered their great strike of last year in which these same girls had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies were the answer.
What happened next …
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire shocked much of the country. In New York City, an investigation resulted in creation of a Bureau of Fire Investigation, which was given power to require more safety measures in workplaces. Nevertheless, the commission stopped short of taking all the recommended steps, partly on grounds that it would cost factory owners too much money.
The families of twenty-three victims sued the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and eventually were paid seventy-five dollars each (a sum worth just under fourteen hundred dollars in 2003).
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire became a rallying cry for labor unions (worker organizations that bargained with employers for higher pay and better working conditions). After the fire, many garment workers joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which demanded that factory owners assure safer working conditions, as well as higher pay.
Did you know …
Each year on March 25, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union holds a memorial at the site of the fire.
For more information
Shepherd, William G. "Eyewitness at the Triangle." Milwaukee Journal, March 27, 1911.
Stein, Leon. The Triangle Fire. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott, 1962.
Tyler, Gus. Look for the Union Label: A History of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995.
Gould, Stephen Jay. "A Tale of Two Worksites." Natural History 106, no. 9, October 1997, p. 18.
"The Triangle Factory Fire." The Kheel Center at the Cornell University Library. http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/ (accessed on April 11, 2003).