In the late afternoon on Saturday, March 25, 1911, hundreds of garment workers were finishing up a day’s work when someone dropped a match or burning cigarette on fabric that littered the floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village. The fire spread quickly from one heap of cloth to the next, quickly taking over the three-floor sweatshop as its 500 workers, many of them young Jewish and Italian immigrant women – some just 14 years old – rushed for the locked exits.
Many workers managed to escape, but some 200 became trapped on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors as the fire grew. The FDNY rushed to the scene, but even the tallest ladder couldn’t reach above the seventh floor of the Asch Building. Horrified people watched from below as groups of women, some holding hands, leapt from the building to escape the flames; their bodies piled up on the streets and sidewalks. William Shepherd, a United Press correspondent, described hearing “the thud of a speeding, living body on the stone sidewalk” over and over again.
The fallout from the fire was monumental. On April 5, some 120,000 workers joined a mass funeral in a rainy Manhattan for the 146 victims; another 400,000 people watched from the sidewalks. Sadness turned to anger after the owners of the factory were acquitted of manslaughter. Over the coming years, a flood of landmark legislation was passed affecting everything from fire safety to factory regulations and labor laws. The progressive reforms started in the city and state before spreading across the country. Sunday marks 107 years since the momentous fire changed the U.S. forever. A memorial at the site is expected to open in spring 2019.
(Warning: Some of the images below are disturbing.)