In the late afternoon of March 25, 1911, as factory workers (mostly young immigrant women) of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory were receiving their paychecks and preparing to go home, a sudden fire broke out on the eighth floor. Within minutes, flames engulfed the upper floors of the factory. It was later discovered that a match on the eighth floor had come into contact with fabric and debris, resulting in the fire spreading rapidly to the higher floors. Many of the women were helpless while waiting for help to arrive and had to suffer death from smoke inhalation, fire or jumping from the windows of the upper floors. A total of 146 deaths were recorded and left many of the survivors traumatized by the event.
The severity of the destruction caused by the fire could have been prevented had the company taken necessary precautions. Despite the obvious flaws in fire safety and recent warning notice from the NY Board of Sanitary Control, little was done to correct the facility's violations. New York was a booming industrial economy in the early 1900's and many factories faced tough competition. The result was often cutting corners and violating building codes in order to turn a profit. There were two major flaws in the Triangle shirtwaist factory building. First, there was only one fire escape even though two more were needed. Second, all the exits had doors that opened inwardly rather than out. As women ran down the fire escape, it began to buckle under their weight. There were two exits and two elevators located on each end (Green Street and Washington Place) of the flat on the ninth floor. The Greene Street stairway was blocked by flames, and the Washington Place stairway was locked. It had become common practice for the factory to lock the Washington Place to prevent employee theft. As a result, the only escape routes left for victims were the elevators.
The ineffectiveness of the firemen revealed many flaws in the fire department that would later be addressed. For example, had the ladder been long enough to reach the top three floors and the water pressure strong enough to reach the floors, many of the victims could have survived the event. A few years after the incident, the fire department developed a stronger water pump and added an extra ladder as a precaution.
After the fire, the owners of Triangle Shirtwaist factory, Harris and Blanck, were brought to court on charges of manslaughter but were eventually acquitted. They were fined $75 for each life lost. However their insurance policy paid them a total of $60,000, at the rate of $400 per life lost, so they actually profited from the tragedy. After two years, they continued to lock the doors to exits and were fined for several safety code violations. However this event heralded the birth of the Labor Movement. It brought numerous laws on safety, brakes for workers and wages.