A Wild, Inexplicable Mass Murder
Originally published in the Forverts, March 26, 1911
Few fire escapes, locked doors, crooked and narrow stairways, a shop crammed with machines — signs of criminal negligence that robbed 144 workers of their young lives.
There was no reason; it was murder, a mass murder. The bosses of the Triangle Waist Company, with permission of the City Board, led several hundred young women to the three highest floors of a dangerous building and burned and murdered them there.
There was no explanation for this. The doors were locked. The stairways were tight, narrow and dark. The one and only fire escape was blocked by huge iron shutters. Months ago everyone knew that a tragedy must happen and would in fact happen. The young women working there sacrificed themselves. They knew they were placing their lives at risk daily. The bosses knew a fire could break out at any minute. The Building Department knew that the “fire-proof” doors were made of wood and that the building had no fire escapes. The mayor knew the building was condemned as a firetrap by an impartial committee that inspected it.
Everyone knew, but no one did anything about it. The unfortunate young women who had to go work at the factory had no other choice. They were enslaved and had to obey their owners. The bosses, furthermore, were insured. They won’t be harmed much by the fire, and the City Board doesn’t investigate this type of “nonsense” much. They have more “important” and bigger business — for example, deciding which capitalist should receive the new subways and the like.
The police consider the total number of victims as 144. There are 141 bodies in the morgue, but also in the deep cellar of the building, currently submerged in water, two more bodies. Of the 144th victim there remains only a head; the rest of the body is missing.
For the entire day yesterday, the City Board led an investigation in the burned building to gather evidence from the fire. According to their findings, the fire broke out on the eighth floor, from a cigarette that somebody threw down next to a tank full of gasoline.
The district attorney sent two assistants to determine whether there is enough basic evidence for a conviction for this frightening slaughter, and they had enough evidence to say that the doors on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors were locked. Many of the young women who survived gave evidence that the bosses used to keep the doors locked so that the workers shouldn’t, heaven forbid, steal out into the hallway in the middle of work, and rest there a few minutes.
The district attorney also discovered that all the doors in the shop opened only into the shop and not into the hall, which is illegal, since when people need to egress, they can’t push open the doors.
Firefighters said that piled next to these locked doors they discovered mounds of dead bodies.
Shop bosses denied the doors were locked. Here are statements several workers gave on the subject:
Annie Alla of 437 East 12th Street said that the factory forelady protested several times to the bosses regarding their keeping the door next to the stairs on the eighth floor locked. Frida Wilakowsky of 639 East 12th Street said that the door on the eighth floor, through which you could access the stairs leading down to Washington Place, was always locked. Fanny Sintar, who recently returned to work at the factory, also confirmed that the doors were usually locked and opened only when workers arrived at work and when they left to go home.
For the first time, the City Board also discovered yesterday that workers at the Triangle factory were packed together inside like herring in a barrel. On the eighth and ninth floors, rows of machinery stood so close together that the chair of one worker touched that of another.
Of the few elevators running in the building, only a few were in use by the Triangle factory. Three elevators were in the front of the building, but only one was in use by the factory. The doors of the other two were blocked.
Access to a stairway at the front of the building was available, but for the majority of the workers, it wasn’t possible to access those stairs, as the machinery was burning and flames blocked the way. Even those who had managed to get to those stairs weren’t able to save themselves. The stairs were too tight, twisted and narrow.
In the entire building, there was only one fire escape, which was also extremely narrow. Only one person at a time could use it, and for the women to come down that fire escape was absolutely impossible. The heavy iron shutters on the windows were in the way and to push them out of the way wasn’t possible for a frightened, weakened young woman.
As it appears, not one young woman managed to use the fire escape to survive. Many of them tried to approach it and managed to reach the eighth floor, but it wasn’t possible for them to go any farther. The iron shutters blocked their way like a wall. It was impossible to push them aside as they were chained to the windows with large metal bars.
Fire Commissioner [Rhinelander] Waldo personally investigated the building and released the following statement, repeating often that the tragedy would have occurred sooner or later because the building was a firetrap:
“This frightening tragedy,” he said, “shows that so-called ‘fireproof’ buildings are not secure from fires. The state must require such buildings to have enough fire escapes and enough exits through which one can escape in the event of a tragedy, and even more, in these types of buildings, where so many workers are inside working. There are many such buildings in the city, even more dangerous than this building, where the vast tragedy occurred last Saturday.
“I mean that there were not enough doors or exits in this building. The one and only fire escape was not passable. The iron shutters blocked them up. The stairways, which were supposedly ‘fireproof,’ were so narrow that only one person at a time could use them. The doors were made of wood and the fire quickly engulfed the halls and stairways.
“There is a lot of evidence here that the doors were locked when the fire broke out.”
Fire Chief [Edward] Croker confirmed everything Fire Commissioner Waldo said.
Everyone who inspects the building and hears the facts that the rescued women explain concur that Saturday’s tragedy was a mass murder. The fire department and unions have also written about this to the mayor and tried to organize a general people’s protest in the press, to no avail. Our Board concerns itself less with the lives of workers. They passed responsibility from one to another. The Fire Department and the Building Department passed it to the Legislature. The Legislature passed it to an investigatory committee. And the people understandably have other concerns and forget about it.
And now everyone admits that a crime has been committed and someone is guilty. And someone is responsible for the 144 lives. The evidence is too strong, the tragedy too frightening. Someone must not be allowed to deny it.
Someone is guilty. But who is it? The responsibility is passed off from one to another. The district attorney will present the incident before a grand jury. And the grand jury will surely determine the same fact that the grand jury found after the terrible Newark fire — that no one is guilty.