Page images





They hide the cigarette in the palms of their hands, and blow the smoke under their coats. "You would get little work out of your men if you would prevent it," explained a boss on the floor below the Triangle factory. And some of the bosses themselves smoke.

Ninety-seven per Cent of the Doors Open

Inwardly, and in Many Cases

the 'Doors Are Locked

As you work your way back to the door you will see that it opens inwardly — in ninetyseven per cent of the factories devoted to one trade it was shown that they opened inwardly. And in many cases the door is locked.

There you have it — goods more inflammable than paper, the whole great room crammed with them, pine tables and boxes and partitions, spitting motors, oil and rags and cigarettes. And, remembering all the while that you are a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet in the air, what do you think about it? In New York alone there are hundreds of factories like this. And, as always, other cities are already aping her. We are assured by the builders of these loft factories that they are the factories of the future. Manhattan has had them for more than ten years, and there have been countless little

fires in them. Is it not by the pure mercy of Providence that, so far, there has been only one unspeakable holocaust? Newark gave us a fire in the factory that was not fire-proof, New York the fire in the one that was. The story of it is told here to show just what these New York tower factories are, and to give the country a chance to decide what is going to be done about them.

The Ascb Building Safer than Most
Loft Buildings

The Asch Building was, and is, safer than most loft buildings. It is a handsome ten-story structure just off Washington Square. It is only a hundred feet by a hundred in are&MJthout irregularities. It has a stairway and two elevators side by side on its Washington Place front, and the same equipment diagonally across the building on its Greene Street side, the latter elevators being used for freight and the operatives. It had a four-inch stand-pipe with hose in racks on every stairway landing, and on every floor there were fire-pails. It had no sprinkler system — without which no cotton mill in New England can buy insurance. But sprinkler systems are not compulsory in New York factories. And the owner, Joseph J. Asch, took a chance on it.

tAbout Fifteen Hundred People at Work on the Afternoon of the Fire

The Triangle Waist Company occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. It was in this shop that the New York shirtwaist-makers' strike of 1009 first started. The officers of the Women's Trade Union League stated that the proprietors Harris & Blanck, had stood for all the bad conditions which brought this strike about. In the actual matter of danger from fire, the Triangle factory was safer than the average. It had no clotheslines of combustibles, or gas-lights, or electric knives. Its stock- and shipping-rooms were on the tenth floor, where only about sixty people were employed; and its gas-iron pressing was also done there. It had automatic alarms. On the day of the fire fifty or sixty of the employees were at home, because of Saturday being the Jewish holiday; but Max Blanck, the senior partner, estimated that ordinarily there were 225 operatives on the eighth floor and 350 on the ninth, besides the sixty people on the tenth floor. It was the rush season. The factory was under a pressure that kept it working till late Saturday afternoons and even on Sundays. And when the law allows a factory owner to have three hundred and fifty people on the ninth floor, that is exactly how many he is going to have. Many of the girls were constantly in fear. There are stories enough to make that evident. And in 1909 an insurance inspector suggested that it would be the part of safety to arrange fire drills. He had Mr. H. F. J. Porter, the father of factory fire drills, write to Harris & Blanck offering to organize one. His letter was not answered. Of 1,243 cloak and suit factories investigated two years later by the Joint Board of Sanitary Control, a fire drill was found in only one. There might, legally, have been 1,100 people working in the Triangle factory instead of 625; and in the whole building 3,600 instead of the 1,200 or 1,500 that there actually were. Again, the Triangle factory was the only one at work after four o'clock that Saturday afternoon. Throughout this story you are to remember what would have happened had this fire broken out on the second floor, or the third when the whole building was full.

The Fire. Starts on the Eighth Floor, Just at Closing Hour

There have been various explanations of how the fire started. "A cutter let a match fall on some old waste." "Some one stepped on a match on the floor." "A man was cleaning his

coat with gasolene." It really does not make much difference how the fire started, when there are so many ways in which it could have started. On the cutting-tables of the eighth floor the "stretches "of lawn—one hundred and seventyfive or eighty layers of the flimsy stuff to a "stretch," with as many alternating layers of tissue-paper — were waiting ready for the Sunday work. It was a quarter to five. The bell had just rung for "power off," and most of the girls had left the tables for the dressing- and wash-rooms, when one of them, Eva Harris, ran to tell the superintendent, Samuel Bernstein, that the boys were putting out a fire over between two tables on the Greene Street side. (There had been fires before. Blanck had put out one himself with his coat.) Bernstein caught up twofire-pails andwentoverto putthisfireout.

But this was not the fire that was put out. "It was in a rag-bin, and it jumped right up." Some of the girls got pails and tried to help. "But it was like there was kerosene in the water; it just seemed to spread it." Frank Formalek, one of the elevator-men, left his car and ran in to help. Louis Senderman and a boy, Leo Todor, tried to use the stand-pipe hose in the hall. They couldn't turn the valve-wheel. "It was rusted," they said, "and the hose, wherever it was folded, was rotten." The whole Greene Street side was burning now, and the fire had begun to come over the tables. Diana Lipschitz, the bookkeeper, sent in an alarm, and then telautographed up to the office staff on the tenth floor to run for their lives. The girl who received the message thought that Diana was "stringing" her. Already the fiftycutters had begun to run for their lives. I t was what firemen call a "flash fire"; and all such factory fires, when once they get started, are going to be flash fires. Bernstein yelled to Louis Brown, a machinist, that they couldn't do anything, to get the girls out.

On the street, a hundred feet below, the fire was heard before it was seen. An Italian named Cardiane, standing at the Greene Street entrance, heard a sound "like a big puff." He saw smoke and flame come out with it, and a noise of falling glass started a horse to running away. The falling glass came from the first eighth-floor windows that blew out.

The Flames Spread to the Ninth and Tenth Floors Inside of Three Minutes

You will be told that when a building is fire-proof the fire can't spread from one floor to another. Foreman Howard Ruch, of Engine Company 18, arrived on a high-pressure truck two or three minutes after the eighth-floor windows blew out. "I saw a sheet of flame come out from the eighth floor," he testified.* "It veiled into the street, and then it veiled into the windows of the ninth and tenth floors as if drawn by a magnet." Firemen generally call that '"lapping in." The flame will suck straight into the windows if they are open; if they are closed — unless they are of wire glass — it will crack them. Inside the ninth-floor windows of the 'Triangle factory, bunches of paper patterns were hanging. On both the ninth and tenth floors the Greene Street door to the stairs was open, and by this time a door to the roof on the Greene Street side was ajar also. Taking everything together, it was much the same as the opening of the dampers and the pipe drafts on two hollow-tile stoves, one above the other, and both filled with every sort of thing that will catch fire and burn most rapidly.

For all three floors it was now a question of getting out.

Triangle Employees Could Not Have Got

'Down by the Fire-Escape in Less

than Three Hours

On the eighth floor the boy Todor and an operative named Starkofsky ran for the fireescape. For there was a fire-escape — a series of landings, eighteen inches in the clear, leading to stairways little better than ladders. It ended five feet from the ground in a closed court. The court itself was soon to be full of fire, and on some of the landings the fire-escape was blocked by iron shutters which had been fastened open. As we have said before, the employees on those three upper floors could not have got to the ground by such an escape in less than three hours; and the fire allowed them perhaps three minutes.

Yet ten or twelve girls and men threw themselves out after Todor and Starkofsky, and began to fight their way down, one upon another. Several fell from landing to landing. One man let himself down by knotting two sections of machine belting together. Most of them managed to break their way in through the windows of the sixth floor, where they were found later, bleeding and moaning. But the boy Todor went all the way to the bottom; falling most of the way, he broke the skylight in the court and got out through the cellar. From the ninth floor one girl, Cornelia Vetere, got down the fireescape, shielding her head from the flame with her big hat. But that belch of smoke and flame

• After the fire there were investigations by the Board of Coroners, the Fire Marshal, and the Bureau of Buildings. All that appears hereafter in quotation marks comes from the evidence of witnesses and survivors, taken under oath; or, in cases where there was vagueness, of amplifying statements made to the writer.

[graphic][merged small]

from the eighth floor did not let many more get down. Out of nearly six hundred, this "good and sufficient means of egress" (to quote the Building Code again) saved fewer than twenty.

There is no more to tell about the fire-escape. Its condition after the fire, as shown in the photograph on page 471, was caused, not by the weight thrown upon it, which was little enough, but by a heat that warped the iron shutters on the building across the court, twenty feet away. It must be plain that it would be the same with any fire-escape, however large and stairway-like, if it opens directly from the nest of fire itself. The writer has been able to find only one factory in New York where the fire-escape does not so open. And, where doors give access to them, most of those doors open inwardly.

Again, if the weight of five hundred or a thousand people were suddenly thrown upon one of these "trellis" escapes it is very doubtful if it would support their burden. No New York factory escape is tested for weight, and it would be quite possible for a fire, trifling enough in itself, to produce a horror such as would make the death list of the Asch Building seem almost commonplace.

Girls Testify that the Doors Were Locked

Some of the girls on the eighth floor had followed the fleeing cutters to the Greene Street door. But to get to it they had to go through one of those narrow passages where their handbags were examined at night. The fire was already over the top of it; in another minute it was entirely cut off. Blocked on the Greene Street side, the girls who knew where the Washington Place door and elevators were ran screaming to them. Downstairs the elevator bells began to ring,— they never stopped ringing,— and then the wire glass of one of the elevator doors was pushed in.

The door into the Washington Place stairway opened inwardly,— that is, toward the girls,— and they testified that it was, as always, locked.* They screamed and beat upon it with their fists, but it would not open. Louis Brown, the machinist, denies that it was fastened. But he "wanted to see if it was locked," he says queerly. "I tried to turn the key, and it would not turn. I seen I could not turn the door (sic). I pulled the knob open, and the girls rushed out." Behind them the superintendent, Bernstein, kept telling them to "go nice."


* There were two stairways, one on the Greene Street side and one on the Washington Place side. The charge is that on the ninth floor Harris « Blanck kept the doors on the Washington Place side locked, compelling all the girls to leave the building by the narrow passage on the Greene Street side where the hand-bags were examined.

There were about a hundred and twenty-five girls to go down by that stairway. It was thirty-three inches wide, and practically a winding stair. According to both the girls and the firemen, no lights were burning in it. Even when people are cool, they can hardly go down a stairway such as that without stumbling. One of the girls fainted or fell at the seventh floor, others fell on top of her, and that "backed them up,"— that, too, when most of the girls were still in the room and the fire rapidly coming nearer.

"There were many girls at the door," says Irene Szivos, a Hungarian tucker. "They were screaming and crying. There were so many I could not get out. I went on a window and I would like to jump. But on the other side of the street I saw some girls that was working there wave their hands that I must not." "A girl's clothes caught fire, and a man's, and they jumped," says Rose Bernstein; "I seen one girl run to a window, and when I got down to the sidewalk I had to step over her." Brown, and a policeman named Meehan who had run in and up the stairs, managed to break that jam on the seventh floor, and every girl who got into the stairway from the eighth floor got out alive. It must be remembered that below the eighth floor the stairs were empty.

The Rush for the Roof

The tenth floor received the alarm before the ninth. And on the tenth nearly every one escaped, most of them through the Greene Street stairway to the roof. "Never go to the roof," Chief Bonner used to say. But here the roof saved lives. Both partners were on the tenth floor. Blanck had two of his children with him. That day he was taking a chance, like everybody else. But students of the University of New York climbed over from their roof adjoining and helped. One of them, Frederick Newman, groped his way down into that tenth-floor loft itself. And they thought they had taken out everybody. Four girls, however, had been left behind in the dressing-room. "When I came out," says one of them, Anna Dorrity, an Irish girl, "I saw them all gone, and I didn't know what was the matter." Thev went to the Greene Street door, and saw the Greene Street stairway below them full of smoke and fire. They didn't know that there were any exits on the Washington Place side, and they didn't know that the Greene Street stairs would take them to the roof. One girl jumped at once. The others started to pile up chairs and tables, in the hope of getting out through the skylight.

[graphic][merged small]
« PreviousContinue »