Saturday, March 26, 2011

Terror and Heroism as 142 die in NYC Factory Fire

Horror struck New York City just before closing time yesterday as a fire broke out on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building, home to the Triangle Waist Company.  According to one of its owners, Max Blanck, in a statement to the press this morning, 750 people were employed by the company, two-thirds of them women between the ages of eighteen and thirty.  Of those, 142 were confirmed dead by Coroner Weston at the Charities Department dock on East 26th Street.  Of the 100 or so bodies that had arrived at the morgue by 10pm, 33 remain unidentified.  The Triangle Waist Company produced shirtwaists, a popular type of buttoned down, women's blouse.

The horrific tragedy, the worst fire disaster since the Slocum steamboat burned on the east river on June 15, 1904, began at 4:40pm yesterday afternoon as the factory began to file past the cashiers to pick up their pay.  The fire broke out on the eighth floor of the building and, thanks to the many flammable materials in the factory, quickly spread to the ninth and tenth floors.  Due to a horrible oversight and potentially gross negligence, only one fire escape to an interior courtyard was available to those in the factory and that was made less than adequate by poor design and the fact that the windows to the fire escape were barred.  Many of the workers, most of them Jewish or Italian immigrants, escaped via two elevators.

However, these escapes provided too little relief to the raging inferno that ingulfed the factory.  Many victims died clawing their way to these meager escapes and at least 50 resorted to another means of relief, the windows facing Washington Place.  At least one woman, Bertha Weintrup, survived the fall from a 10th floor window, however the rest were not so lucky.  On-lookers in Washington Place were gripped by the horror of watching woman after woman, many with clothes ripped off during the mad scramble to escape the flames, some even on fire, fall to their deaths.  In one case, a woman who escaped via the elevators was struck and killed by a falling body as she left the burning building.  Some women who tried to flee the flames via the windows managed to climb out on to a ledge at the base of the windows, but ultimately lost their grip or were accidentally pushed by the throng on panic-stricken women behind them.

The lone fire escape in the interior of the building was not much comfort.  Due to poor design, the escapes stairs ended at the buildings second floor.  Worse still was the fact that every window facing the fire escape from the eighth floor down as closed.  The mass of men and women who tried to use the escape forced many to either leap of 25 feet from the base of the escape or use a series of wires at the second floor level to crawl over to one of the open windows to safety.  Unfortunately, only six or seven of the 50 or so people who tried this method of the escape succeeded.  Many fell to the courtyard below where some either drowned in the six feet of water that quick filled the airshaft or impaled themselves on metal spikes that topped a concrete dividing wall.  The crush of humanity on the fire escape forced many to make life or death decision before it could be properly thought out.

Amidst the tragedy and horror of the fire, heroes did rise up.  A group of law students in an adjacent building managed to carry ladders up the School of Law and Commerce of the New York University in Washington Square.  They, along with firemen, used the ladders to bridge the gap between the two buildings, allowing at least 50 women to escape the flames.  Many others lost their lives as well as the crush of people trying to save themselves knocked them off the ladder, landing in the flooded courtyard below.  The effort had to be suspended after flames reached the university building.  More ladders were found in the building and these allowed women on the roof of the Asch Building to be rescued.  In another case of heroism, a man only identified as Gregory took control of an elevator abandoned on the ground floor by its operator and made at least ten trips to the tenth floor, carry 30 women on each trip.  Gregory slipped back into the crowd surrounding the building before he could be interviewed by the press. In another case, a patrolman managed to catch a small boy who had lept from an eighth floor window.

While victims continue to be identified in the East 26th Street morgue, authorities are promising a thorough investigation both into the cause of the fire and into why so many people died in the fire or trying to escape it.  While the former has not be speculated on, both Fire Chief Croker and borough president George McAneny stated that the lack of proper fire escapes and sprinkler systems contributed to the massive loss of life.   Coroner Holtzhauser told the New York Tribune:
I am going to find out who is responsible for this carnage and put the blame where it belongs.  It is awful to think that these poor girls went to work this morning, being carried up the elevators, only to finish their work by being taken from the building dead and mutilated.
Borough President McAneny stated that he would look into whether any complaints had been made about inadequate fire escapes for the building.  "If this structure where a fireproof loft building, as I have been told, fire escapes were not compulsory.  If, however, it was a factory building, then to comply with the law there should have been fire escapes."  Fire Chief Croker was more adamant about fire safety violations inside the building:
This calamity is just what I have been predicting.  There were no outside fire escapes on this building.  I have been advocating and agitating that fire escapes be put on building just such as this.  This large loss of life is due to this neglect.
The building did have one other means of escape, a stairwell in back of the building.  Chief Croker stated that the door to the stairway was closed.  A pile of bodies six feet high was found on the other side.  He believes that if this stairwell had been used by those trying escape the fire, the death toll would not have been nearly as high.

The owners of the company that was destroyed by the fire, the Triangle Waist Co.'s Max Blanck and Issac Harris in a statement issued to the press this morning, stated that they were still missing several relatives due to the fire, like Blanck's brother-in-law Jacob Bernstein and cousin William Selzer and Harris's niece Esther.

Veronica Stirnitzke should provide an opinion piece on the fire tomorrow.

Link: More than 140 Die as Flames Sweep Through Three Stories of Factory Building in Washington Place [The New York Tribune]
Link: Thousands Fight to Claim Fire Victims [The Washington Times]
Link: 150 Perish in Most Sickening Holocaust [The Bisbee Daily Review]
Link: 142 Die when Shirtwaist Factory Burns [The Washington Herald]

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