Originally published in the Forverts, March 26, 2011
175 Workers Lose Lives in a Burning Shirt Waist Factory
The Triangle Waist Company Located on the Top Three Floors of a 10-Story Washington Place building Is Destroyed in Fire — Firefighters’ Ladders Can’t Reach Unfortunate Workers Who Stand at the Windows Seeking an Escape Route – Many Hanging from Windows Must Let Go as the Fire Reaches Their Hands and They Plummet to Their Deaths — 141 Dead In Morgue — 56 Corpses Are Unrecognizable — Mothers and Relatives Sob and Keen for Blocks Around the Tragic Site
The Entire Jewish Neighborhood Mourns
One hundred and seventy-five workers — men, women and children — died in the fire that broke out yesterday at 33 Washington Place. Some burned to death in the fire and some leaped out of the windows to their deaths.
The fire broke out at 5:30 p.m., right after the bell sounded the end of the workday. The building is 10 stories high. The Triangle Waist Company occupied the top three floors, and that is where the fire started.
The flames spread very quickly. A stream of fire rose up through the elevators to the uppermost floors. In the blink of an eye, fire appeared in all the windows and tongues of flame climbed higher and higher up the walls, as bunches of terrified working girls stood in astonishment.
The fire grew stronger, larger and more horrifying. The workers on the upper floors were already not able to bear the heat and, one after another, began jumping from the eighth, ninth and 10th floors down to the sidewalk where they died.
The first fire engine did not appear until a pile of dead already lay on the sidewalk.
The firefighters were helpless to fight the fire. The ladders reached only to the seventh floor. As if lost, the firefighters stood watching as one after another woman fell like birds shot down from the burning floors above.
The first to jump were women. Men held out longer, wrapped in flames, and when they could stand it no longer, they followed the women’s example and also jumped.
Down below, thousands of workers from the neighboring factories stood, wailing in lament. Moving, unforgettable scenes were witnessed from below. On the eighth floor, a couple appeared in the window — a young man and woman. He held her tightly by the hand. Behind them, red flames were visible. The young man pulled the woman tenderly to his breast, kissing her on the lips, and then he let her go. She sprang off and landed heavily on the sidewalk. He leapt down and fell hard next to her, dead.
Above, the fire roared. A sea of flames and a cloud of smoke enveloped the upper floors. From time to time, when the wind blew the flames and smoke aside, masses of desperate people were visible from below — people who were still alive.
The flames very quickly overtook the stairs and filled the elevator shafts. One of the elevators came crashing down. The other three managed to go up two times, bringing down about 100 girls. The elevator boys were afraid to risk it a third time and hundreds of girls sobbed, waiting, and instead of elevators, they watched the flames coming closer and closer to them. Realizing that no rescuers were coming to save them, they took off for the roof, the fire escapes and windows.
A sudden horrific crash—the seventh floor had fallen in. Scores of girls who were standing there near the elevator shaft were flung into the sea of flames that raged there. Their bodes were later found lying one on top of the other in ruin.
It took a whole hour before the firefighters could get access to the burning building, and by then, everything was all over. The sidewalks were covered with the dead and wounded. No longer was anyone visible at the windows. The unfortunate girls who had remained in the building were lying somewhere either burned or asphyxiated from the fire and smoke.
The street was then already filled with police, firemen and doctors. Inspector Harley had called up all his reserves from the police stations between 42nd Street and the Battery. He had called up ambulances from all the hospitals in the neighborhood, and he had sent a special police force rushing about the neighborhood to summon all private doctors to the disaster zone.
They transported the dead to the station houses and the wounded to the hospitals. But there were not enough ambulances and patrol wagons to do the job, so the neighborhood grocers, butchers and peddlers lent their trucks and pushcarts. Scores of neighboring stores were transformed into morgues and hospitals. Five minutes after the fire broke out, the bodies of 30 dead girls were already lying on the sidewalk. The firefighter on the scene at the time had no time to tend to them. They were trying to save those still alive and put out the flames.
One policeman later reported that he himself saw 45 girls jumping out of the windows. The flames spread so quickly that after 20 minutes those remaining in the building were either burned to death or asphyxiated. And those who might have been saved from flames and smoke later drowned in the streams of water that had flooded the building.
The crowd of people that had gathered around the fire was the largest that New York had yet seen. The surrounding streets had to be blocked off to traffic for hours.
The dead bodies were first transported to the Mercer Street Station House. Hundreds of people followed the ambulances and patrol wagons — friends, relatives and acquaintances of the unfortunates, wailing uncontrollably. A large number of police had to be called out to keep the hysterical mass out of the station house.
Later, Deputy Police Commissioner [Clement J.] Driscoll ordered that the dead bodies be brought to the morgue and he ordered 75 caskets.
Fire Chief [Edward F.] Crocker declared that the total number of dead would exceed 100.
Thirty-five perished from jumping out of the windows. More than 60 burned to death in the building. And 20-something drowned and/or suffocated in the elevator shafts.
The fire also consumed the lower floors, where cloak shops were located, but there were no casualties there, since the cloak workers only work till noon on Saturday, as per their union.
Yesterday was one of the most terrifying days in the history of the Jewish neighborhood. Our entire immigrant population is going about disoriented and shuddering in pain. Daughter, sisters, cousins and friends are being mourned in hundreds of homes. And in thousands and thousands of other homes, they are being grieved for by those who had never met them. Each one of us is a mourner whether or not we knew one of the victims. Each one of us is left with a wound in our heart. Tears choke our breath. Our hair is standing on end from fright. Our blood has congealed in our veins. It is hard to write about it.
The writer of these words has himself not witnessed the destruction. How must the ones who were there feel today? The streets of the East Side are filled with tears. People are rushing around crazed, haggard, their eyes bulging — running around, wringing their hands, trying to begin telling the tale of what they saw and not being able to.
Ten minutes ago, before I picked up this pen, the editorial office door opened to a heart-wrenching wail. A young man, a Jewish worker, barged in in hysterics, waving his arms and flooded in tears.
“I was there! I saw!” he sputtered, and he couldn’t speak any further.
We barely managed to calm him. And then he began to recount, and in recounting, he broke down crying every few minutes, grabbing his head and remembering the scenes he had witnessed.
“By the time I reached the area, all three upper floors were already enveloped in flames. Dead girls were already lying on the sidewalks and streets. Their clothes were still on fire. Masses of burning bodies were flying through the air. I froze in fright.”
“Firefighters were rushing about wringing their hands. They didn’t know what to do first. I watched people pour pails of water on the burning corpses. And I also began helping.”
“Not far from me, a girl lay burning like a candle. I ripped off her clothes and proceeded to stamp out the flames with my hands and feet. Then I noticed that her limbs were moving. She trembled, and I was overcome with horror.”
“With the help of another man, we carried the girl over to an ambulance. The doctor examined her for just a few seconds and then instructed us to put her in the ambulance to send her to the hospital. He then rushed away to other victims.”
“In the hospital, she was revived. Her fingers were broken and one of her feet was completely shattered. We left her there and rushed away.”
“Going down the stairs, we noticed another victim, a 23-year-old woman being brought in with her head split open. She was unconscious on a stretcher. Her clothes were soaked in blood. She was 99% dead.”
The whole time this young man was talking, another man was sitting next to him, crying. He had also come to relate horrifying news that he himself had witnessed.
“I was on Broadway when I saw people running and screaming, so I ran as well. When I got to the corner of Washington Square, I first noticed flames on the seventh floor of the tall factory building. Not a minute passed before the flames spread to the eighth and ninth floors. Girls were waving their hands in all the windows, beckoning to be rescued.”
“The firemen put up their highest ladder, but it reached only to the sixth floor. It was impossible to get to the unfortunate. With each second, the flames grew more vicious. All of us below screamed and motioned to them with our hands that they should run up to the roof, but we soon saw that it was impossible. The interiors of all three floors were entirely consumed with flames.”
“It was then the alarming leaping began. A young boy was the first. He flung himself down from the eighth floor. The firefighters quickly spread their only net and caught him. The rest of them probably noticed. Unfortunately, they didn’t know that there was only one net. They saw how one individual was caught safely, and hoped they, too, could be rescued. From out of the windows of all three upper floors, columns of burning bodies started falling. It was a horrific image! The firefighters were stunned. Each dead body landed like a thunderclap. Each crashing sound hit the crowd like a bullet to the heart.”
“It’s likely some girls were petrified. They stood at the windows as if paralyzed. Bit by bit, the flames surrounded them until they were completely swallowed up in them. They then fell as flaming pieces, downward.”
“It took half an hour before the first ambulance arrived. It took a long while before enough firemen were at the site. Several firemen from the first fire truck that arrived soon after the fire had broken out had to do most of the work that first quarter of an hour. That’s why they could truly not do anything.”
“If the firefighters had had longer ladders and enough nets, they could have rescued everyone.”
At that point, a third young man, a comrade Miller, arrived at the Forverts office still hot from being at the fire.
“It’s terrifying to talk about. To witness it is to take 10 years off of your life.”
“People, masses of people are standing outstretched around the area, wringing their hands, tearing their hair out, and sobbing loudly as they watch the destruction, seeing innocent girls, in the flower of their youth, being sacrificed on an altar.”
“Some were screaming madly, out of their minds from such hideous scenes.”
“The girls wrapped in flames up there appeared like little children.”
“They leaped downward straight into the arms of death.”
“They fell one after another and the pile of dead on the street grew and grew.”
“Suddenly, you could see a girl on the eighth floor. She stood there in desperation for a while, wanting to leap downward but then pulling herself back. The flames drew closer to her and closer still. The girl tried to jump again, and again she retreated. Several more times she tried, but she stopped herself. The flames were growing larger and closer till they finally reached her and lit her on fire…. She fell downward powerlessly like a heavy load. The crashing sound as it landed on the ground still reverberates painfully in people’s hearts. A deep moan tore out of the bystanders.”
“Three girls were seen at a window, with no chance of being rescued. The flames raced around. The unfortunates wrapped their arms around each other and together, as a threesome, jumped to their deaths below.”
“Patrol wagons, ambulances, firemen and heaps of dead.”
“One victim after another was tossed into the patrol wagon. Those were the bodies of young girls, still emerging from childhood. Only one hour ago, they were still alive, still striving and hopeful. Dead, ruined, immolated, lying there in the patrol wagons.”