On March 25, 1911 in New York City, at the intersection of Greene Street and Washington Place, three stories of a ten story building burned, killing 141 men and women. It was to be looked upon as one of the most reprehensible occurrences in American industrial records, as the deaths were essentially avoidable. Most of the injured died as a consequence of disregarded security features and doors which were locked from within the building. The disaster brought widespread awareness to the hazardous sweatshop predicaments of factories and prepared the way to improvements of a sequence of regulations that improved the defense of the security of laborers.
The Triangle Factory which was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was based in the Asch Building on the top three floors. It was an actual sweatshop, that hired young foreign women that labored in confined areas at rows of sewing machines. Almost all of the laborers were teenage girls that did not speak English, laboring twelve hours a day seven days week. In 1911, there were elevators that provided accessibility to the factory floors, but on the day of the fire, only one was completely functional and the laborers had to walk down a lengthy cramped hallway to reach it. There were two stairwells down to the street, but one of the doors was bolted on the outside to put a stop to theft and the other door opened inward. The fire escapes was so sparse that it was unusable, but even so it would have taken hours for the laborers to escape the fire.
The hazard of fires in factories such as The Triangle Shirtwaist was common, but top positions of dishonesty in the clothing industry and local government usually made certain that no safeguards were taken to avoid fires. Blanck and Harris already had a questionable record of factory fires. The Triangle factory was burnt two times in 1902, while their Diamond Waist factory burned two times in 1907 and again in 1910. It appeared that Blanck and Harris intentionally burnt their workshops before work hours in order to get paid the enormous fire-insurance policies they bought, a not unfamiliar procedure in the early twentieth century. While this was not the reason for the 1911 fire, it had a hand in the catastrophe, as Blanck and Harris prohibited the installation of sprinkler systems and took other safety actions in case they decided to set fire to their factories again.
Attached to the negligence were Blanck and Harris' infamous anti-worker programs. Their laborers were paid only $15 per week, although they worked twelve hour days seven days a week. When the International Ladies Garment Workers Union conducted a strike in 1909 insisting on higher pay and shorter hours, Blanck and Harris were one of the few manufacturer's that resisted by employing police as thugs to put the striking women in jail and giving bribes to politicians to look away.
On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were a total of 600 laborers at the factory when the fire started in a container of rags. The manager made a effort to put the fire out, but was unsuccessful since the hose was deteriorated and the valve was corroded shut. The young laborers tried to leave the building by using the elevator, but it could only hold twelve people at a time. The operator was only able to make four trips up and down before the heat and flames caused the elevator to quit working. In a frantic effort to get away from the fire, girls that were left behind started jumping down the elevator shaft to their deaths. The girls that went down the stairwells also met with terrible deaths when they located the door which was locked at the bottom of the stairwell, many had been burned alive. The laborers that were on floors above the fire, along with the owners, escaped to the roof and then to connecting buildings. As firefighters got to the scene, they observed a dreadful scene.