The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Those Who Lived To Tell The Tale!
“I was choking. The fire was in the hall… I put my muff around my head tightly and I ran right through the fire. The fur caught on fire. When we got down stairs they kept us in the hall… Not the street, because the bodies were falling down. I saw one woman jump and get caught on a hook on the 6th floor and watched how a fireman saved her.” – Rose Hauser
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was one of the deadliest industrial fires to occur in U.S History. The early evening of March 25th, 1911, left a hundred and forty-six people dead, and another hundred others severely injured. The victims mostly young women, many either Italian or Jewish immigrants. On that day, the fire blazed through the 8th, 9th, and 10th floor’s of the Asch Building in Manhattan, New York near Washington Square Park. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a business owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. The company’s main purpose was manufacturing women’s blouses, known as “shirtwaists”, a popular garment throughout the Edwardian period.
In today’s post I will be sharing the firsthand accounts of three different women who were there that day and survived to tell the tale. Disaster struck towards the end of the day at about 4:40pm on the 8th floor according to official records. The cause was most likely an employee’s lit match or a cigarette butt carelessly discarded into a rag bin, quickly igniting the waste basket that was filled with several months worth of cloth clippings. These and surrounding materials in the factory were highly flammable. Smoke and fire spread rapidly leaving workers little time to respond. Employees only had minutes. That presents a problem, because there were obstacles preventing workers from safety.
The thing that most people don’t realize about this tragedy, is the fact it was completely preventable and the loss of life wasn’t necessary. The doors to the stairwells and exits were locked, a common practice at the time to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to reduce theft. This unfortunately led to most of the deaths, a lot of the employees had no chance of escape, leading them to jump out the windows resulting in their deaths or died from inhaling smoke. It was because of the locked exits, a lack of escape routes, unsafe conditions, and numerous fire hazards in the building that led to major changes in United States legislation and its worker unions that went towards improving factory conditions so this wouldn’t happen again. New laws were created to protect factory workers.
According to journalist Erin Blakemore in her article for the National Geographic titled How a tragedy transformed protections for American workers “For years, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was the United States’ worst occupational disaster—a macabre symbol of the tragic hazards of the sweatshop system. But the fire birthed more than tragedy. It shocked Americans and galvanized public opinion on workplace safety, and the investigation afterward exposed the factory’s unsafe conditions. Though its victims were among the poorest and most invisible laborers, their deaths were publicly mourned.”
Below are accounts from Sarah Friedman Dworetz, Rose Hauser, and Anna Pidone
Sarah Friedman Dworetz
Interviewed: June 12, 1958
On the day of the fire I was working on the 9th floor, I had gotten my pay and we were all ready to leave and all dressed. The fire must have been burning on the 8th floor for some time when we went to the freight elevator exit to go home. We had to leave that way because that is the way the watchman was able to look in our bags and where he stayed. There was a narrow vestibule leading to the freight elevator. I was waiting in that vestibule when all of a sudden the smoke, and then the fire, began to come up the elevator shaft. I turned to run back to the other end of the shop where the freight elevator was. I took one look into the shop as I ran and I saw the flames coming in from all sides.
The elevators were going up and down. On the front side the door to the staircase was closed. I had to fight and push my way across the shop. There was screaming and shoving and many girls tried to climb over the machine tables.
The elevator had made several trips. I knew this was the last one but it was so loaded that the car started to go down. The door was not closed. Suddenly I was holding to the sides of the door looking down the elevator shaft with girls screaming and pushing behind me.
It was the old style elevator — cable elevator — to make it go down, you pulled the cable from the floor up. That cable was at the side of the elevator shaft. I reached out and grabbed it. I remember sliding all the way down. I was the first one to slide down the shaft. I ended up on top of the elevator and then I lost consciousness. Others must have landed on top of me. When the rescue workers came to the shaft they pulled me out and laid me out on the street. I had a broken leg, broken arm. My skull had been injured. One of my hands had been burned by friction.
NOTE: (apparently this is a case in which the victim, taken for dead, was removed with the other bodes but separated from them when life was detected in time.)
They moved me into the book store. My only worry was that I did not want to go to a hospital. We lived on 170 Henry St. I was only afraid of the shock to my mother. I lived on the 4th floor.
I was sick for 6 months. I never heard from the company after. At the trial, the lawyer asked me over and over again but I refused to say that the door was open. We got a $1.50 for being witnesses. I must have worked there about a year at the time of the fire but the day of the fire was the first time I tried to use the front elevator.
NOTE: Mrs. Dworetz learned in this interview for the first time that there was a fire escape.
While we were on the freight side I saw flames in the shop. The flames were all around us as we ran across the floor.
When I got home I still had my pay envelope still clutched in my hand.
NOTE: Mrs. Dworetz volunteered the information that every time March 25th rolls around many of these event seize her.
She said that some people are amused by her practice of not locking her door when she is at summer resorts but she says they just don’t understand.
Interview: September 4, 1958
**NOTE: Husband & sister worked in shop at time of fire. Name is Rose Teitel.
On the floor a gong used to ring when the day was over. About five minutes before quitting time I sneaked into the dressing room. There were a few girls in the dressing room. I used to sing a lot in the shop, some of the girls asked me to sing a song while we were getting dressed. They asked me to sing — I still remember the name of the song — “Every Little Movement Has a Meaning of Its Own”. They insisted that I sing so I did my little act in the dressing room. As soon as I finished the song I heard the bell ring but it seemed to me that it was a little bit too soon.
We were never allowed to go down the front way — either by elevator or staircase. We always went by the freight which was in the back.
When I got out of the dressing room I looked toward the freight elevator and I saw smoke pouring up. The smoke was also coming out of the staircase. I ran with some of the other girls to the front door. I put my hand on the knob and tried to open it and I stood there screaming that the door was locked. I tried to open it and I stood there screaming that the door was locked. I tried to force it open with all my strength but it would not move.
I looked around and I saw the flames coming in all the windows. The fire was in the shop and was coming toward us. There was a fire escape at the windows near the freight side. The fire escapes had iron doors and shutters. Everybody was running and hollering and people were choking from the heavy smoke. I took my muff and put it over my head. I ran back to the front elevator and there was no chance there. I kept my muff on my head and ran toward the freight side again. I found that the door to the back staircase was open and that is how I got out.
Before I went down the staircase I looked to the fire escape. I saw one woman climb on there and fall right over the rail.
When I began to go down to the 8th floor, I was choking. The fire was in the hall on the 8th floor. I put my muff around my head tightly and I ran right through the fire. The fur caught on fire. When we got down stairs they kept us in the hall and they wouldn’t let us go into the street because the bodies were falling down. The firemen finally came and took us out across the street and we stood numb in the doorway of a Chinese import store. I saw one woman jump and get caught on a hook on the 6th floor and watched how a fireman saved her.
The elevators were the old fashioned cable car kind with the cable going right through the car.
I wasn’t hysterical and I was just numb.
After all this horror I remember I finally met my girl friend. She did not know about the fire and she scolded me for being late. We never went to buy the hat.
My cousin was going home from work when he heard about the fire. He rushed to my house. He lived on Lewis St. He cried out that he did not know what to do, that he did not see me and he asked my mother where was Rose. I was in the other room in what must have been a state of shock. My mother asked him (Harry) what was the matter and he began to tell her about the fire. I came out of the room and stood there listening to him and I could feel my mother become more and more excited. When he told her what happened she fainted and collapsed to the floor. It was only then that I also began to cry and I cried for hours. The next day there was a regular parade of people. They all came to see me and I was still alive. The full tragedy hit me at that time. I could not sleep for weeks.
We had a “lanslady” — I was very friendly with her daughter who was their only child and who worked in Triangle. When the “lanslady” heard that I had been saved she came yelling into our house and in her sorrow began to wave her hands at me and berate me why I had not saved her daughter. The poor woman — she lost her mind. My mother pleaded with her and tried to calm her. For a long time after that I was afraid to walk on the block where she lived. I was afraid to meet her. I dreamed about it at night and I would dream that I was falling out of the window screaming — the whole house would wake up. I remember hollering to my mother in the dark, “Mama, I just jumped out of the window.”
The 8th floor had a better chance. The people on that floor saw the fire start and grow and had a little time to do something for themselves. On the 9th floor it was terrible. When we first saw the fire it was already burning all around us. It came in at all the windows, up the elevator shafts and up the stairs. The shutters were rusted in.
The front was not for workers because there was nobody there to check on the packages and pocketbooks, so you had to go out the back way because in the back there was always a man watching to see that you did not take anything out of the shop.
My husband’s sister worked on the 8th floor and she got out by going down the staircase. **(See note)
In fact that is how I met my husband — when I went to meet Rose (they lived on Sherrif St.) and when we both went to testify in court. I worked in the shop for an inside contractor. We were three girls and this man. We worked section work. The other three were all burned to death.
I went back to work for Blank and I worked for him as a designer for a number of years but he never knew that I worked for Triangle. Harris became the Normandie Blouse and had a shop on 32nd St.
** Feinberg & Weisen
** Somebody from the Forwards interviewed her.
The Eastside was decorated with black flags.
I was one of the first witnesses called. Steuer certainly made me sweat. He put words in my mouth. He confused me and tried to prove I was lying. I said one word and he twisted it to mean its opposite. He prodded me and while I answered him I could see in front of me, the bodies of the girls falling through the air but he was trying to make me look like a fool. At one point I screamed out at him, “I am not lying, I am telling the truth. For god sakes I could see the whole thing in front of me.”
I could have killed him. I could have scratched his eyes out. (Steuer)
I testified about the door being closed. I told them I tried the door in the front. There were about 150 girls on the floor. It was a long dressing room but when five girls were in it, it looked crowded. It had a sink, toilets but no cot.
I understand Blank moved to the West Coast.
Interview: September 10, 1957
Mary Leventhal and I had paid all the people on the 9th floor. We went from machine to machine and gave out the pay envelopes. I went over near the freight elevator where the button was and rang the bell for everybody to stop work at 4:45, that was the end of the day.
I didn’t know there was a fire and I went to the dressing room. Suddenly someone ran to the dressing room and cried “Fire”. I came out of the dressing room and saw everything was in flames. I ran to the front door and the door was locked. Many people began to go to the windows to jump from the windows.
My sister was age 25. She worked with me on the 9th floor as an examiner. During the time we were running around to get out I kept hollering for her but I could not find her for even a minute.
The people began to throw themselves out of the windows. All the machines were bubbling with flames. I had my fur coat and hat with two feathers and a green woolen skirt which I pulled over my hat and my head. I know I ran to the windows but then I backed away. I know I was all wet but it could not have been from the firemen’s hose. I cannot remember whether I wet myself with a pail of water or somebody threw it at me. I ran back toward the freight elevator through the open aisle which was the last aisle after the machines and I went to the back staircase door. I remember there was a big barrel of oil near that door and when I opened the door and ran through and began to go down the staircase I heard a loud bursting noise. Maybe the barrel of oil exploded.
The big hat the girls gave me.
When I went to the window I made the sign of the cross and was ready to jump but I didn’t have the courage.
I remember also that one of the persons who came back later that afternoon to get pay and died in the fire was somebody that was supposed to get married on Sunday.
I went down the staircase, all the way down to the hall downstairs and I didn’t meet a soul, not a single soul. I remember when I went past the 8th floor I looked through the door and all I could see was one mass of fire. The wind was blowing up the staircase and the fire was going the other way. When I got downstairs I was cold and wet and I remember a man who was looking for his sister and gave me his coat.
We lived at 437 E. 12th St. I came out on the Greene St. side stunned and this man who was looking for his sister looked into my face. My face was all black from the smoke of the fire.
I went home in a daze. A man took me home.
On the way going home I met my brother and he began to ask right away “where is Mary” Mary Forresta ?
He ran back and tried to look for her. They could not find her but later that night some friends identified her. When we had the funeral for the family she lay in her casket and she looked very very pretty but she was a heavy girl and every bone in her body had been broken when she fell down from the fire escape. For months after that I used to begin to shake everytime I heard a fire engine.
There was a lawyer from St. Paul Bldg. – a lawyer O’Neil and he made my case. I was on the stand for 2 1/2 hours. The lawyer Steuer kept trying to catch me. Every once in a while he said how many times did you open the door, and everytime I yelled back at him, I never could open it – it was always locked. Only the back door was open. Then he would ask me again and again when you opened the door, when you saved yourself, did you open it out or did you open it in and one time I screamed back at him, I could not open it at all.
Eleven jurors were in my favor but one disagreed. It was a separate case. I sued for $25,000 (Case apparently ended with a hung jury).
Harris & Blank were very nice to me but I lost my sister in that fire and I know the door was locked. When they came out of the court they were surrounded by the cops on all sides.
I think 13 men were killed in the fire. One of them was Jake Klein, an operator who was very handsome.
I never knew about the fire escape. We used to use the freight elevator only.
I used to help check any bundles that the people would carry out after we rang the bell. I would ask them what was in the package. We generally ate at the machines but there were places to eat on Greene St.
The fire danced on the machines.
There were piled up boxes against the door. There were too many in the windows.
I knew about the staircase in the back because I used it for my work as a forelady; sometimes I went to the 8th floor to the cutters for re-cuts of damages. Sometimes I went to the 10th floor for trimmings but the others never used the staircase.
When I looked into the 8th floor, everything was burning. By the time I got to the ground floor I was dizzy and I lost my balance. I kept crying where was my sister.
We found her at 2 o’clock in the morning at the morgue. A week before I got my neighbor a job at Harris & Blank. She had 5 children. She was burned to death.
BOOK PICK OF THE DAY
“Sure to become the definitive account of the fire. . . . Triangle is social history at its best, a magnificent portrayal not only of the catastrophe but also of the time and the turbulent city in which it took place.” —The New York Times Book Review
Triangle is a poignantly detailed account of the 1911 disaster that horrified the country and changed the course of twentieth-century politics and labor relations. On March 25, 1911, as workers were getting ready to leave for the day, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. Within minutes it spread to consume the building’s upper three stories. Firemen who arrived at the scene were unable to rescue those trapped inside: their ladders simply weren’t tall enough. People on the street watched in horror as desperate workers jumped to their deaths. The final toll was 146 people—123 of them women. It was the worst disaster in New York City history. Triangle is a vibrant and immensely moving account that Bob Woodward calls, “A riveting history written with flare and precision.”
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