The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

What Happened from Start to Finish at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Firefighters putting out the last of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Firefighters putting out the last of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Courtesy Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library

At the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan, somewhere around 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire began on the eighth floor. What started the fire has never been determined, but theories include that a cigarette butt was thrown into one of the scrap bins or there was a spark from a machine or faulty electrical wiring.

Most on the eighth floor of the factory building escaped, and a phone call to the tenth floor led to most of those workers evacuating.

Some made it to the roof of the next door building, where they were later rescued.

The workers on the ninth floor -- with only a single unlocked exit door -- did not receive notice, and only realized something was wrong when they saw the smoke and flames that had spread. By that time, the only accessible stairwell was filled with smoke. The elevators stopped working.

The fire department arrived quickly but their ladders did not reach to the ninth floor to allow escape by those trapped. The hoses didn't reach adequately to put out the flames quickly enough to save those trapped on the ninth floor. Workers sought escape by hiding in dressing rooms or the bathroom, where they were overcome with smoke or flame and died there. Some tried to open the locked door, and died there of suffocation or the flames. Others went to the windows, and some 60 of them chose to jump from the ninth floor rather than die from the fire and smoke.

The fire escape was not strong enough for the weight of those on it. It twisted and collapsed; 24 died falling from it, and it was not of use to any others trying to escape.

Thousands of spectators gathered in the park and streets, watching the fire and then the horror of those jumping.

The fire department had the flames under control by 5 p.m., but when firefighters entered the floors to continue to bring the smouldering fire under control, they found charred machines, intense heat -- and bodies.

By 5:15, they had the fire completely under control -- and 146 had died or suffered injuries from which they'd die shortly.

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