Herstory

The Triangle Fire – a tragic event that sparked change

What do fire safety regulations, International Women’s Day, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) have in common? They were all formed as a result of a tragic event that occurred on Saturday evening, March 25, 1911, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. It is believed that a lit match or cigarette disposed into a bin of clothing scraps started a fire that quickly spread across the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the factory as the workers (mostly women) were coming to the end of their 6-day work week.

The factory owners were on site when the fire began; however, instead of alerting their staff, they made their escape to the roof and survived. The lack of an alarm system to alert the workers, blocked exits, locked windows, and faulty fire escapes contributed to the horror that would unfold on the factory floors. People on the street saw the smoke coming from the building and alerted the fire department who responded quickly to the call; however, their ladders only reached the 7th floor. The fire reportedly lasted for 18 minutes and resulted in the death of 146 factory workers. The eyes of New Yorkers and the nation were on the response to this tragedy.

March 25, 1911 – Bodies of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers who jumped from the burning building. Sixty-Two people jumped or fell from the factory windows.

When the company owners were acquitted of manslaughter charges, and a civil trial resulted in only a $75 fine (approximately $2,000 in 2020 dollars) for every individual that lost their lives, the community was outraged. Community rights activists called for regulations on building safety and unions either formed or gained credibility for workers’ rights. As a result, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, International Women’s Day, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) were formed in the years after the fire. The horrific Triangle fire ignited a movement that resulted in safer working conditions for us all.

Hot for more? 

READ: Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

WATCH: Triangle: Remembering the Fire

Featured photo is a blend of Sandro Katalina’s photo of a stairwell and Sarah Mckellar’s photo of smoke. Both from Unsplash.

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