There were many reasons for the high death toll, such as the doors to the narrow stairwells and exits being locked by the factory management (a common practice then to prevent employees from stealing and taking unscheduled breaks), the fire escape in the rear of the building collapsing, the firefighters’ ladders being several stories too short, and the water from the fire hoses only being able to reach up to the seventh floor — when the factory occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building.
By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died, and another 71 were injured. (The newspaper account below reported 142 dead, which was believed to be the correct number at the time.)
One of the worst things about this tragedy is that nearly all of the things that made this fire was so deadly were preventable. If there’s a silver lining to this story, it is that — after public outrage and a court trial — it led to vastly-improved safety conditions in factories.
Here are several a newspaper reports from the days following the disaster, together with some photos of the damage that were soon released.
142 die when shirtwaist factory burns
Girl employees leap to death from windows
New York is scene of gruesome tragedy, due to insufficient protection
Bodies piled in heaps on sidewalk
Blaze starts on eighth floor of big building and 800 persons are trapped – Eyewitnesses describe efforts to escape
New York, March 25 – Long rows of coffined dead on the morgue pier — last so used at the time of the Slocum disaster — marked the work of a fire in the Asch Building, at Greene Street and Washington Place, late this afternoon.
There were 133 of the coffins at 11 o’clock, and more were coming in. Chief Croker estimated the dead at that time at 150, but only 142 dead had been recovered. Eight died in the hospitals, where seventy-five wounded had been taken.
The dead were shirt-waist makers, mostly women and girls, employed by the Triangle Shirt Waist Company, of which Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were proprietors.
The ten-story building, owned by Joseph Asch, of South Norwalk, Conn., had 1,500 machines on three of the floors, and only one fire escape, which ran down into a rear courtyard.
The shirtwaist factory working conditions before the fire
A room in the same factory after the disaster
Photo of New York sshirtwaist factory holocaust, costing upwards of 200 lives; Taking down description of the dead
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory during the fire / After the fire
People jumped to their deaths during the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
When the fire came, men and women leaped into the street by dozens, and died there. There were fifty-three corpses on the Greene Street sidewalk when the reporters got there. There were more dead at the bottom of the elevator shaft, and many more, some of them burned to mere skeletons, on the upper floors.
The women and girl machine operators who were found dead on the street had jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth, or top, floors. They jumped in groups of twos and threes into life nets, and their bodies spun downward from the high windows of the building so close together that the few life nets stretched below soon were broken, and the firemen and passers-by who helped hold the nets were crushed to the pavement by the rain of falling bodies.
Firefighters carrying a Victim of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Gathering up the bodies after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
Toward 6:15 pm, the police, directed by Deputy Commissioner Driscoll, Inspector Schmittberger, Inspector Daly, and Capt Henry, began to gather up the bodies from the sidewalks close to the buildings, and to haul more bodies from the water in the basement through the hole in the vault light which the bodies had made when striking.
In the meantime, firemen led by Chief Croker had got to the eighth and ninth floors — the woodwork of the windows on the tenth floor was still burning briskly almost two hours after the fire started — and the firemen came out a little later to report that they had come across not only half-burned bodies, but had seen charred limbs of bodies that had been incinerated.
“The worst fire in a New York building,” said Chief Croker, as he came out among the ambulances and fire apparatus again, “since the burning of the Brooklyn Theater, in the ’70s.”