There were 275 women and young girls who were looking forward to an evening at home with their families as started to pack up their belongings to leave work at 4:45 PM on that fateful Saturday afternoon in 1911. They never made it there for within twenty minutes time, many of their charred bodies were lined up along the East Side of Greene Street in New York City. These women who flung themselves from the ninth floor to escape the flames were merely covered with tarpaulins in the spot where they had hit the concrete. That Saturday evening, the Bellevue morgue was overrun with bodies and a makeshift morgue was set up on the adjoining pier on the East River. Hundred's of parents and family members came to identify their lost loved ones. In total, 146 employees (mostly women) of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were dead that night of March 25, 1911. The horror of their deaths led to numerous changes in occupational safety standards that currently ensure the safety of workers today.
Back inside, on the 8th floor, feeding on cotton fabric and then climbing to the hanging overhead garments, the fire took little time to race out of control. The foreman and male tailors tried desperately to douse the licking flames with the 27 water buckets that were available. The efforts proved to be futile and the 275 girls panicked in desperation and headed for the two passenger elevators and the stairway at the west end of the loft. The crush of women at the door leading to the stairway slammed it closed. The doors in this building opened in rather than out.
The fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City, which claimed the lives of these 146 young immigrant workers, is one of the worst disasters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This incident has had great significance in thatthis it highlights the inhumane working conditions to which industrial workers can be subjected. To many, its horrors epitomize the extremes of the industrial society, and the tragedy still dwells in the collective memory of the nation. The victims of the tragedy are still celebrated as martyrs at the hands of industrial greed.
The Triangle Waist Company was, in many ways, your typical sweatshop; it in the heart of Manhattan, at 23-29 Washington Place, at the northern corner of Washington Square East. Low wages, excessively long hours, and unsanitary and dangerous working conditions were the hallmarks of of these sweatshops.
The company's owners had fled to the building's roof when the fire began and survived. They were later put on trial, at which the counsel for the defendants, managed to destroy the credibility of one of the survivors, Kate Alterman who had been asked to repeat her story several times. The attorney argued to the jury that Alterman and probably other witnesses had memorized their statements and might even have been told what to say by the prosecutors. The defense also stressed that the prosecution had failed to prove that the owners knew the exit doors were locked at the time in question.
The jury acquitted the owners. However, they lost a subsequent civil suit in 1913 and plaintiffs won compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty.
The building where 146 died still stands now and is part of the New York University. Today, students look out the windows where so many leaped to their deaths.