March 25, 1911. New York, New York. 4:40 PM.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
A small fire is sparked in an 8th floor waste cloth bin, filled with over two months of small fabric scraps. It spreads quickly, and a bookkeeper calls to the tenth floor offices to warn employees. There is no way to warn the production line workers on the ninth floor. The first indication of trouble to the floor is not until the fire has already reached it. Though the fire department is notified and arrives soon after the fire breaks out, their tallest ladder only reaches six stories high. Panic breaks out among the workers, who are mostly recently immigrated Jewish and Italian young ladies.
There are two freight elevators, two stairways, and a poorly maintained fire-escape. One stairway is blocked by the fire, and the other is locked, to prevent theft by the workers. The freight elevator operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo, save over a hundred lives by risking their own.They make three trips each to the ninth floor, until the heat of the fire and the bodies of workers hurling themselves down the elevator shafts warp the cables beyond usability. Terrified workers crowd out onto the fire escape, overloading the already ill-upkept metal. It buckles and twists, breaking away from the building, and dozens of women fall over 100 feet to the unforgiving pavement below. The crushing impact from falling so far leaves them no more than mangled bloody pulps.
No other escape routes remain, and the firefighters’ nets have been torn by the momentum of those they tried to save from falling. A man jumps out of a ninth-floor window. Another appears in a window on the floor above, holding the hand of one of the women. They kiss, and jump to their death. Fifty-nine more workers jump out of the eighth, ninth, and tenth floor windows. Some women hesitate when they appear at the windows; the pervasive flames lick at their hair and skirts long enough to set them ablaze, and they fall to the pavement as shrieking, flailing torches. On the east side of the building, there are over forty bodies piled up. Women on the street are hysterical; men are fainting, and going into frenzied fits. The din of the horror is deafening blocks away.
At the end of the day 129 women and 17 men were dead of blunt force trauma or asphyxiation. Two of the women were only fourteen years old.
The trial of the two owners of the company acquits them of all criminal charges. A later civil trial forces them to pay $75 per victim of the fire. The event drew attention to the lack of safety standards and regulation in factories, and the exploitation of young immigrant women. It was the most deadly disaster in New York City until the destruction of the World Trade Center, and was one of the most poignant focal points of the labor rights movement.
In February of this year, one hundred years after the disaster, the identities of the last six unknown victims were published.