March 25, 2011

No exit

One hundred years ago today, in the late afternoon, a fire started on the eighth floor of the Asch Building in lower Manhattan.  Before it was out, 146 employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were dead, 129 of them women.  Girls, many of them, still in their teens, immigrants not long off the boat. 

At least 62 of the workers died jumping from the windows of the eighth, ninth and tenth floors, though many were on the one fire escape that buckled and collapsed and fell to the ground.

Those who survived had either made it to the elevator before it stopped running or to the roof.  Among them were Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the company, and their children, whom they’d brought to the factory for a visit.  Two stairways were unusable, one because of flames, and the other because it was locked and the foreman with the key was one of the first to flee.

For 99 years and 11 months, the identities of six of the victims were still unknown.  Then, in February, an amateur genealogist named Michael Hirsch released his report on the six unknowns and his list of names is now the definitive one. You can find the story here and a complete list of names here.

A lot of things changed after the fire, including the fire department, which had no ladders long enough to reach the top floors of the building.  New York state became one of the most progressive labor states in the country and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) grew in strength.

Some things of course will never change – the owners were tried on first and second degree manslaughter charges and found not guilty.  A civil suit followed, and resulted in fines of about $75 per victim.  This was no loss for Blanck and Harris, as their insurance amounted to about $400 per person. Blanck was tried again in 1913 for locking the exit doors and was fined $20.

Brown Building today.

The Asch Building still exists.  It was bought by a philanthropist named Frederick Brown, who donated it to New York University.  It is a National Historic Landmark.

* * *

Many happy returns to Gloria Steinem, Aretha Franklin, Elton John and Sarah Jessica Parker.


1 Comment »

  1. Great and tragic story told very well thank you.


    Comment by avery — March 26, 2011 @ 8:35 am | Reply

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