Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Guardian Spirit of the Triangle Fire

In March of 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City. It lasted eighteen minutes. Within this short period, 146 people perished most were young Jewish and Italian immigrant women. 

Sixty-two of these young women leapt to their deaths preferring this to death by fire.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory was a typical sweatshop of its day. Some of the workers were as young a 13, and all worked fourteen hour days, six days a week for 6 to 7 dollars a week. 

The companies 500 workers were crowded into three upper floors of the Triangle building. The year before many of the workers had gone on strike for better working conditions. On the day of the fire, the exit doors were locked to keep the workers in and union organizers out.

When the fire started, it leaped from one pile of discarded fabric to the next. Several workers began down the outside fire escape. But less than 20 made it down before it collapsed killing several girls. 

A shipping clerk tried to fight the flames with a fire hose, but the water had no pressure.

Many workers jammed onto the service elevator, but as it made its slow trips, the flames and smoke engulfed the rooms, so more workers jumped into the shaft as the elevator descended. Some managed to grab briefly onto the cables that held it in place, but most fell on top of it. This added weight forced it to snap free and crash to the bottom of the shaft.

Others waited at the windows hoping for a rescue from the fire trucks below. But as the fireman raised their ladders they realized they were too short--they reached only to the sixth floor. They also found the water from their hoses did not reach the entire upper level.

William Shepherd, a UPI reporter, was across the street when flames started licking out of the eighth and ninth floors. It is his account which told the story that evolved into the legend of the guardian spirit. He called his office with a dramatic report that was sent by telegraph operators simultaneously across America.

Shepherd saw, way above him, a young man helping a young woman to the ninth floor windowsill. The young man held her out the window and let her drop. The man reached back into the flames, held a second girl out the window and then a third, letting them fall. 

None of the girls resisted, “as if,” reported Shepherd, “he were helping them into a streetcar instead of into eternity.”

A fourth girl put her arms around the man in the window and kissed him, perhaps impulsively for the first time or for the last. Then he held her out of the window and dropped her 100 feet to the sidewalk below. Shepherd wrote, “I saw his face. He had done his best.”

Those who jumped into the fireman’s nets crashed through them. A witness reported seeing the fireman’s bloodied hands as they tried to hold tight. Sometimes two or three women jumped together, holding hands. 

“The fire alarm was sounded at 4:45 p.m. and at 4:57 p.m. the final worker fell from the ninth floor, onto an iron hook on the sixth floor, where she hung burning and then, about a minute later, with a thud onto the street below.”

It is not known how the fire started, perhaps a lit cigarette, or maybe the oil from the sewing machines lit rags in bins. Afterward, the fire chief said he found skeletons bending over sewing machines. 

The two owners of the factory were bought to trial, but they were acquitted because they had not broken any laws.

As a result of the Triangle Fire laws for fire compensation and child labor were put in place. It also inspired a massive unionization movement in America.

This building is considered haunted today. In my post, Triangle Fire's Haunted Brown Building I share information about this.

1 comment:

Leona Joan said...

What a sad story. God bless all the pour souls who perished that awful day. May they rest in peace.