On this day: The Triangle Shirtwaist fire

March 25 1911: Deadliest industrial disaster in US history

By Jennifer Lipman, March 25, 2011

It was late on a Saturday afternoon, the end of the working day, when the first flames were spotted at the Triangle Waist Company factory in New York.

The tragedy left 146 people dead and more than 70 with injuries, prompting the introduction of improved regulations on factory safety.

Most of the victims were Jewish and Italian women and children, recent European immigrants to the United States attempting to work their way out of poverty and out of the tenements of the Lower East Side.

Fires often claimed victims, but casualty numbers in the incident were so high because the workers had no way of escape. The managers had locked the doors to the factory, leaving the only route out to jump, helplessly, from seven or eight floors up.

Louis Waldman, a witness to the fire, later recalled: “Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity.

“Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street.”

What the JC said: As labour conditions worsened, Jewish workers took a lead in establishing strikes for better conditions and better wages: strikes which were stimulated by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire…which culminated later that same year in the three-month strike of 60,000 cloakmakers, demanding that their union should be recognised as the sole bargaining agent with their employers. The ‘Protocol of Permanent Peace’ with which this strike was settled was worked out by Louis Brandeis, later the first Jew to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court.

See more from the JC archives here.

Last updated: 9:46am, March 25 2011