This Day in History: The Triangle Factory Fire Killed 123 Women and Girls

One hundred and four years ago today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caught fire. The incident has gone down in history as one of the worst industrial disasters in US history and is known for killing over 120 immigrant women and girls. 

The nine-story building held the "shirtwaists" (blouses) factory on its top three floors. In cramped quarters, young immigrant Jewish and German women worked on sewing machines for 12 hours a day, every day. Many of them did not speak English.

The devastating fire, which started in a small rag bin, was considered to have been preventable had the factory owners adhered to safety regulations. The building had one fully functional elevator, a weak fire escape, and the two stairways had been locked from the outside to prevent stealing. 

Within eighteen minutes, the manager tried to use the rotted firehose, but found the valve had rusted shut. The one working elevator made four trips before breaking down amidst the heat. The girls left waiting jumped down the shaft attempting to hold the cables to slow the fall. Some girls tried the staircases but met the doors locked from the outside and were trapped. The girls who did not make it to the elevator or stairs began to jump from the factory windows. Firefighters struggled to fight the fire in the midst of their bodies on the sidewalks. Their ladders were many feet too short and the water from their hoses could not reach the top floors. In total, 146 workers - 123 women and 23 men - were killed.

The tragedy attracted widespread attention to dangerous sweatship conditions, leading to a 80,000-person protest on Fifth Avenue and the development of laws and regulations to protect both women and workers. The public response led to the creation of a Factory Investigating Commission which examined the safety and working conditions in New York factories and the "the golden era in remedial factory legislation" from 1911-1914. 

You can read more on the Triangle Factory Fire here.