It was the deadliest workplace accident in New York City's history. On March 25th, 1911, a deadly fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York's Greenwich Village. The blaze ripped through the congested loft as petrified workers -- mostly young immigrant women -- desperately tried to make their way downstairs. By the time the fire burned itself out, 146 people were dead. All but 17 of the dead were women and nearly half were teenagers.
The workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were among the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who toiled in the city's garment factories at the time. They came from countries such as Italy and Russia in search of a better future, and all around them they saw the riches promised by the American Dream. New York was in its Gilded Age and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was not too far from the limestone mansions of millionaires and the elegant shops of the famed Ladies Mile. Two men who had achieved the dream were the wealthy owners of the thriving Triangle factory. Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, immigrants who had arrived from Russia only 20 years earlier, had become known as New York's "Shirtwaist Kings," and each owned fully staffed brownstones on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
The dream seemed a long way off for the young workers at the factory who toiled 13 hours a day for $0.13 an hour. Though the factory was considered modern with its high ceilings and large windows, the working conditions were difficult. Only a year before the deadly fire, New York's garment workers had begun agitating for shorter hours, better pay, safer shops and unions. To the horror of Harris and Blanck, the young women of the Triangle factory joined the crusade and called for a strike, becoming leaders in what became the largest women's strike in American history. Within 48 hours, more than 50 of the smallest factories gave in to their workers' demands, but the Triangle bosses organized other owners and refused to surrender, paying prostitutes and police to beat the strikers. Their terrible treatment brought the women an unexpected ally. Anne Morgan, the daughter of J.P. Morgan, and many of her powerful suffragist friends -- the so-called "mink brigade" -- took up their cause, and the press and public began to rally to the plight of the brave young seamstresses.
After the strike had continued for 11 weeks, the Triangle owners finally agreed to higher wages and shorter hours. But they drew the line at a union. Back on the job, the Triangle workers still lacked real power to improve the worst conditions of the factory floor: inadequate ventilation, lack of safety precautions and fire drills -- and locked doors.
When a tossed match or lit cigarette ignited a fire on the eighth floor of the building, flames spread quickly. Blanck and Harris received warning by phone and escaped, but the 240 workers on the ninth floor continued stitching, oblivious to the flames gathering force on the floor below. When they finally did see the smoke, the women panicked. Some rushed toward the open stairwell, but columns of flames already blocked their path.
A few workers managed to cram onto the elevator while others ran down an inadequate fire escape, which crumbled under the weight, crashing to the ground almost 100 feet below. The only remaining exit was a door that had been locked to prevent theft. The key was tucked into the pocket of the foreman, who listened to the women's cries for help from the street. Hundreds of horrified onlookers arrived just in time to see young men and women jumping from the windows, framed by flames.
In the days that followed, a temporary morgue near the East River was set up for families to identify the bodies of their loved ones. Nearly 400,000 New Yorkers filled city streets to pay tribute to the victims and raise money to support their families. The ensuing public outrage forced government action. Within three years, more than 36 new state laws had passed regulating fire safety and the quality of workplace conditions. The landmark legislation gave New Yorkers the most comprehensive workplace safety laws in the country and became a model for the nation.
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