Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: March 25, 1911

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: March 25, 1911

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caught fire and in about half an hour killed 146 people, the majority of them young women. It remains one of the deadliest workplace disasters in U.S. history.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire headlinesThe Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a sweatshop housed in the top three floors of a 10-story brick building in New York City. The factory was one of the top producers in the country of women’s shirtwaists, and it employed hundreds of workers, mostly young women in their teens and twenties who were Italian or Russian Jewish immigrants.

On March 25, a Saturday, workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory prepared to leave at the end of the day. Employees of other businesses in the building had mostly all already gone home. Around quitting time, smoke was spotted coming from a rag bin beneath a cutting table on the eighth floor at about 4:45 p.m. Workers tried to put out the fire, but it spread too quickly and soon traveled through the elevator shafts and shattered windows to the upper floors.

Workers on the eighth floor tried to escape via the two passenger elevators and two stairwells, and many succeeded. Likewise, many of the workers on the tenth floor were able to evacuate to the roof, where they crossed via ladder to a neighboring building.

The workers on the ninth floor, however, had a much harder time evacuating. The door to one of the stairwells was locked, and the other stairwell quickly became impassible due to smoke and fire. Some tried to use the fire escape, but it soon collapsed under the weight of too many people. Others tried to jump down the elevator shafts, and while some survived this, many others did not. As the fire intensified, dozens of workers began jumping out of the windows, dying upon impact on the ground below, despite the attempts of onlookers to catch them with life nets.

Though the fire department arrived quickly, their ladders only reached the sixth floor, and the fire burned too quickly for them to save many of the people trapped inside. Within about half an hour, the fire was put out, but of the approximately 500 people who worked at the factory that day, 146 died—in the fire, from smoke inhalation, or from jumping to their deaths.

The tragedy proved the impetus for reform, and legislation was passed in New York that improved safety and fire regulations. Although the owners of the factory were put on trial (for the locked door on the ninth floor), there was not enough evidence to prove guilt and they were acquitted.

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52 thoughts on “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: March 25, 1911

  1. I can’t even imagine the panic and fear. Even a hundred years on,this is a cautionary tale for all businesses.

  2. How typical is the outcome of the trial. Those responsible for mass tragedies are never held responsible for their acts.

  3. I found a book about the fire in my high school library back in the early 1970s. I hate to admit that it fascinated me so much that I read the book several times.

    1. I would say it was not so much of the fascination as the fact that it was more hard to believe that a company that was run by money hungry morons that did not care about lives but cared about how much the human being able to endure the sweatshop for the meager wage they received & never even thought & cared if a tragedy like this would ever happen. It’s also good to reread because there is always something that you miss. It’s like watching Schindler’s List, every time you read or watch you pick up something you missed the 1st time.

  4. This is appalling and should never have happened! Those who owned this building should have been held accountable!

  5. My grandfather was one if the firemen who responded. Although he was commended publicly and awarded a medal, no one in the family can rejoice over such a horrific event. God rest their souls.

  6. My grandmother worked at the Triangle. She was at home the day of the fire, caring for her ailing mother. They only lived a few blocks away and she would have heard the fire engines and probably run to the factory and seen her friends trying to escape and fall from the ninth floor. She never spoke of it until shortly before she died, 60+ years later.

    1. Hope you have documented her story for future generations. The names and dates of genealogy are key research markers, but it is the STORIES of how people faced their challenges that make family history come alive.

      1. My grandmother did not want to talk about it, other than to mention that she worked there. It was just too painful. I am an oral historian and so wished I could have eased that story out, but she had packed it away in order to go on with her life.

        1. What is a ….
          “Pole Turtle Manager”….
          This is someone who is at some managment post within a Company or Corporation that is causing high turnover of employees, lost Revenue & Profits, Poor working inviorment, and creates financial loss as well as over looks Major Safety HazHazorthat can result in Law Suets by the Public, as well as Employees.
          How can you tell if you have one in your Company ? If its a small Company its easy but if its a Large Corporation the it is much harder, and just like a Virus it can spread to other Managers under or beside them. You may not even know you have one, and think your Profit & Loss sheet is normal revanue. When you do find out in general its to late because your Company is falling into the Bankruptcy Courts where all Financial Records are being looked at by the Accounts of the Court.
          I have been in the Corperate World for over 35 years, and developed ways of spotting them, and getting out before it Bankruptsmes, and starts keeping me up late at night worring about the ” Why, and If, Should I, ext. ”
          I call them Pole Turtle Managers. How they get there is anyones guess but one thing is for sure my 3 guidelines are a threat to them, and they will show themselves as if to Hold Up A Sign saying …….
          ” Im A Pole Turtle ” They do not put the Company 1st, They do not Protect their Manager, They do not Protect their CoWorkers. They Only Protect Themselves, and Only keep others informed with information that Protects Them THE POLE TURTLE.
          #1 You know they didn’t get on top of that Pole by themselves.
          #2 You know they will not be able to get down from the Top of that Pole by themselves.
          #3 Somebody is going to have to Help This Turtle get off the Pole, and it may be YOU that has to do it.

  7. The story gets featured every few years. I think the labor movement may do something to keep it in the public mind. It is sad but true that employers like this still exist. Every election cycle, they come out of the swamps complaining about how their ability to make money is hampered by government regulation.
    It is especially infuriating that the latest election has put their people in power to the point that we may see wholesale dismantling of a regulatory structure which has reduced (never eliminated) the frequency of such atrocities. Those of you who voted for Trump, you have enabled that type of employer again, and given them economic advantage over responsible ones.

      1. Yes, not the time or place for that. And the gentleman should realize he’s not having the effect he intended.

      2. Wrong. That’s exactly what we need to remember from the history of this event. Why study history if you can’t learn from it?

    1. You can hardly blame the employer or the building owner for a fire starting in a rag bin. Perhaps a secret smoker among the employees? Tragic happenings occur – always have, always will. The goal should be to prevent as many as possible and lay blame only where proven.

      1. I can blame the employers. The doors were locked to prevent workers from leaving without going through a daily security check. The employers escaped via the rooftop, leaving the workers behind. 146 people — mainly immigrant women — died.

    2. The employers were absolutely to blame, no question. But this event and others had a silver lining. 1911 – Triangle Fire. 1912 – Women’s March. 1913 – Textile Strike in Lawrence. 1919 – 19th amendment giving women the vote. 1920 – ratification. Look at this date though….1984 – Mississippi becomes the lats state to ratify the amendment.

    3. So true. The wealthy and powerful have taken over the Republican Party, and many of the regulations they want to abitrarily throw out have good basis in health, safety, and protecting the rights of we, the working class. Those who voted for Trump, should be seeing by now that he is a lier, a demigog, and possibly suffering from Altziemers. You should be ashamed for sticking the rest of us with this jerk!

      1. this is still a free country & you are entitled to your way of thinking & speech. Trump has not been in for 8 years like Obama to screw the country up …& tell us seniors we are not getting a increase in our SS because the price of gas has fallen….I’m so happy that we seniors are wearing, eating, drinking & paying our bills with the cheap gas & that they want to increase the minimum wage at McDonald’s to $15.00 an hour…that was Obama. Thank you very much for your thoughts & opinions.

      2. There is a commemoration that is held at the site of the fire annually since 1961. Ladder Company of the NYC Fire Dept.,attends & rings a bell, once for each victim. Each name is read and a flower placed at the site (the Brown Building-NYU)

  8. Robert Pinsky, the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1997 to 2000 wrote a beautiful poem about the tragedy (and injustice) of this crime. “Shirt”.

  9. Does anyone know of the novel by Sholem Asche(sp?) called East River that was inspired by this tragedy?

  10. does anyone know if there is a list of names of all the people who died in that fire

    1. Here’s the victim’s list from The Kheel Center-Cornell University-

      1. thank you Colette, for info,there were 3 women on the list who I may be related to.

          1. thanks again ,Colette,I will certainly do that,i’ve run into a roadblock researching my ancestry,possibly due to a name change

  11. My maternal great grandfather was one of the two passenger elevator operators (Joseph Zito) at the Triangle.

  12. This fire spurred the growth of the ILGWU. The earliest iteration of this group fought long & hard to have improvements made to sweatshop factories: proper entrances & exits, fire proofing-fire extinguishers-fire alarms & sprinklers, restrictions on working hours for women & children; improved lunch and toilet facilities; monitoring & regulations.

    1. Yes. That glowing red EXIT sign in every public place is one result of the Triangle fire.

  13. In doing my genealogical research i learned my a cousin 2x removed , a young man in his twenties was witness to the fire and according to family it drove him mad. He spent the rest of his life in state psychiatric hospitals. Seeing the girls bodies crashing to the sidewalk in front of him was indelible.

  14. This tragedy did result in safety conditions being put in place. These safety changes would never have come about if it hadn’t been a beautiful day where the wealthy were in a nearby park with their families and had to see it firsthand. This tragedy mobilized those strong immigrant women to strike, how courageous what a wonderful legacy they have given us.

  15. If the article was read carefully the head lines that Jews were killed at the Triangle fire is incorrect or tampered. Jewish was a group that took words from the Torah to create a new social religious enterprise with membership from the 1950s-to present. The Torah never understood was made an icon and then idolized for a group that admits they are failed consciences with a reality that fantasizes, in the middle east Russians popularized the gimmick for self-satire and from there the growth.

  16. bothers me when people don’t take the time to get the right gender in spelling

  17. When I was a county Planning Commissioner and having a degree in Civil Engineering, I was invited to the local High School to speak about zoning. My main topic was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. I am from NYC and knew of this since childhood. I was glad to bring it to light for students here in the West.

  18. I remember watching a movie on television many years ago about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It was well done and respectful of those who lost their lives. I worked in a library and read every book I could find on the subject.

  19. That building is still there and is now part of a university. There’s a plaque at street level telling about the tragedy.

  20. I collect old sheet music. I have the one piece done on the Triangle Fire, published by the Hebrew Publishing Co. Scarce, but not impossibly rare.

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