Jan Doherty

Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Jan Doherty, Public Education Officer, No Phone Number Available

Wednesday, March 25, 2015 at 10:09 a.m.

Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Many fire tragedies become the source for new fire codes with the hope that past mistakes are never repeated. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, ignited in the early evening of March 25, 1911 was a preventable tragedy. It also became a catalyst for legislation to improve safety and employment conditions for workers.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire took the lives of 123 women and 23 men between the ages of 14 and 43. They died from the smoke and flames, from collapsing with the unstable fire escape, and from the desperation of jumping from upper floors of the building. The fire started around 4:45 PM from a match or cigarette butt flicked into a scrap bin.

Working conditions, set to better assure profits for the owners, created a death trap for the laborers. There were not enough exit routes because doors had been locked to prevent workers from stealing or taking unauthorized breaks. Aisles were crowded and cluttered with fabric scraps that fueled the fire. The single exterior fire escape was in such poor condition that it broke with the weight of workers desperate to exit the fire. There was no audible alarm to alert workers on the ninth floor. There had been no fire drills.

Sweatshops remain in operation in various parts of the U.S. and throughout the world. But most workplaces in the U.S. adhere to the fire codes that have evolved through tragedy throughout the years. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire is a reminder that fire drills and fire alarm system tests should be understood as learning opportunities rather than interruptions. It is also a reminder to keep exits clear, fire doors closed but unlocked and personal work spaces cleared of potential fire starters such as space heaters, coffee pots, and extension cords.

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