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Gary Hanna
Out of the Flames

This article tells the riveting true story of the Triangle factory fire of 1911 and how the tragedy changed America forever.    

By Kristin Lewis
From the November 2018 Issue

Learning Objective: to think critically about the lessons learned from a historical disaster

Lexiles: 840L, 920L
Other Key Skills: figurative language, author’s craft, supporting details, text structures, text features, inference, key ideas
AS YOU READ

As you read the article and study the images think about why the Triangle fire was so devastating.

Flames clawed at her back. Black smoke choked the air. Waves of red-hot fire curled across the room and licked up the walls.

It was March 25, 1911, and 17-year-old Katie Weiner was trapped on the ninth floor of a burning building in New York City.

Moments earlier, fire had broken out at the factory where Katie worked. Now the flames were spreading with lightning speed. With the fire swirling closer and closer, Katie had to make a terrible choice: Stay and die—or dive into a moving elevator and hope to survive.

She dove.

Early that morning, Katie had made her way through the streets of the Lower East Side, the neighborhood in New York where she lived with her mother, brother, and sister. It was unseasonably warm—a welcome relief after the bitter days of winter.

Katie was headed to the Triangle Waist Company, where she and her older sister Rose, 23, worked making shirtwaists—fashionable women’s blouses that were all the rage at the time. Like many teenagers in 1911, Katie did not go to school. She had to work to help support her family.

As always, the Lower East Side vibrated with life. Katie would have heard the clatter of horse-drawn wagons, the thunder of steel trains, the shouts of boys hawking newspapers. She would have seen laundry hung out to dry, flapping in the wind. And she would have smelled the scent of fresh bread wafting from bakeries.

Almost everyone on the Lower East Side had come from another country. In the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of immigrants were streaming into the United States every year. Katie’s own family had come to New York City from Russia when Katie was about 5. They had faced violent religious persecution in their home country. And so, like others, they had come to the U.S. with the dream of freedom, with the dream of a better life.

To many immigrants, America seemed a place of hope, a land of plenty where jobs were as abundant as food, where anyone willing to work hard could get ahead. But newcomers swiftly learned that things were not nearly as rosy as they had expected.

Life was tough, especially on the Lower East Side. Families had to cram into tiny tenement apartments. Most worked long hours in dangerous jobs for little pay. Keeping food on the table was a constant struggle.

Flames clawed at her back. Smoke choked the air. Waves of fire curled across the room and up the walls.

It was March 25, 1911. Katie Weiner, 17, was trapped on the ninth floor of a burning building in New York City.

Moments earlier, fire had broken out at the factory where Katie worked. Now the flames were spreading fast. With the fire coming closer, Katie had to make a terrible choice: stay and die or dive into a sinking elevator and hope to survive.

She dove.

Early that morning, Katie had walked through the streets of the Lower East Side, the neighborhood in New York where she lived with her mom, brother, and sister. It was unseasonably warm, a relief after the bitter days of winter.

Katie was headed to the Triangle Waist Company. She and her sister Rose, 23, worked there making shirtwaists. These fashionable women’s blouses were all the rage at the time. Like many teens in 1911, Katie had to work to help support her family.

As always, the Lower East Side buzzed with life. Katie would have heard the clatter of horse-drawn wagons, the thunder of steel trains, the shouts of boys hawking newspapers. She would have seen laundry hung out to dry. She would have smelled fresh bread from bakeries.

Almost everyone on the Lower East Side had come from another country. In the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of immigrants were coming to the United States every year. Katie’s own family had come to New York City from Russia when Katie was about 5. They had faced violent religious persecution in their home country—and so they came to the U.S. with the dream of a better life.

To many immigrants, America seemed a place of hope where jobs were abundant, where anyone willing to work hard could get ahead. But newcomers quickly learned that things were not as rosy as they had expected.

Life was tough, especially on the Lower East Side. Families lived in tiny tenement apartments. Most worked long hours in dangerous jobs for little pay. Keeping food on the table was hard. 

Lewis Wickes Hine/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images 

Coming to America

From 1830 to 1940, some 40 million immigrants streamed into the U.S. Many settled in New York City. The Lower East Side, where Katie lived, became home to many immigrants. By 1900, the Lower East Side was one of the most densely populated places on Earth. The photo shows New York City’s Lower East Side, around 1915.    

Triangle Waist Company

About a mile from the Lower East Side stood the Triangle Waist Company, one of New York’s largest clothing factories. It occupied the top three floors of a modern skyscraper called the Asch Building.

When Katie arrived there on March 25, she would have taken an elevator to the ninth floor—one large room packed wall to wall with 288 sewing machines, plus a small dressing room and a bathroom.

As the elevator carried Katie skyward, she could not have known that she was about to become caught in a deadly fire that would change her life—and America—forever.

About a mile from the Lower East Side stood the Triangle Waist Company, one of New York’s largest clothing factories. It occupied the top three floors of a skyscraper called the Asch Building.

When Katie arrived there on March 25, she would have taken an elevator to the ninth floor—one large room packed with 288 sewing machines, plus a small dressing room and a bathroom.

As the elevator carried Katie skyward, she could not have known that she was about to be caught in a deadly fire that would change her life—and America—forever. 

Courtesy Fashion Institute of New York/SUNY    

The Shirtwaist Kings

The Triangle Waist Company produced shirtwaists, which were as popular as jeans are today. And at $1 a shirt, they were affordable enough that most women could buy one.    

Death Trap

Along with about 500 other workers, Katie spent upward of 10 hours a day, six days a week, painstakingly making trendy shirtwaists. These button-down women’s blouses were so popular that the owners of Triangle—Max Blanck and Isaac Harris—had become very rich. Blanck and Harris were even nicknamed the Shirtwaist Kings.

But for workers like Katie, there was nothing royal about factory life. Katie made only about $8 a week—or $200 in today’s money. And her eagle-eyed bosses were always looking for an excuse to pay her less. If she pricked her finger and dripped blood on the fabric, the cost of the ruined material could be deducted from her already meager wages.

In factories at the time, bosses regularly worked their employees to the bone while paying them as little as possible. Sometimes these factories, or sweatshops as they were called, seemed almost like prisons. Doors were locked to keep workers from taking breaks. If you went to the toilet, a supervisor would follow to make sure you didn’t take too long. Talking, laughing, and singing were often forbidden. Bosses were known to shout and insult workers. If you didn’t work fast enough, you could be fired on the spot.

In spite of these hardships, Katie probably felt lucky to have a job. After all, even a small amount of money was better than no money at all.

Still, working at Triangle was a struggle. And as Katie would soon find out, the factory itself was a death trap. 

Along with about 500 other workers, Katie spent upward of 10 hours a day, six days a week, making shirtwaists. These button-down women’s blouses were very popular. The owners of Triangle, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had become rich. They were nicknamed the Shirtwaist Kings.

But for workers like Katie, there was nothing royal about factory life. Katie made only about eight dollars a week—or $200 in today’s money. And her bosses were always looking for an excuse to pay her less. If she pricked her finger and blood dripped on the fabric, the cost of the ruined material could be deducted from her wages.

In factories at the time, bosses regularly worked their employees to the bone while paying them as little as possible. Sometimes these factories, or sweatshops as they were called, seemed almost like prisons. Doors were locked to keep workers from taking breaks. If you went to the toilet, a supervisor would follow to make sure you didn’t take too long. Talking, laughing, and singing were often forbidden. Bosses were known to shout and insult workers. If you didn’t work fast enough, you could be fired on the spot.

In spite of these hardships, Katie probably felt lucky to have a job. After all, even a small amount of money was better than no money at all.

Still, working at Triangle was a struggle. And, as Katie would soon learn, the factory itself was a death trap.

Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images

A U.S. garment factory around 1910    

Fire Hazards 

Fires were a major problem in garment factories. It took only a tiny spark to ignite one of the many piles of flammable fabric that crowded the factory floors. In fact, there had already been several small fires at Triangle. Fortunately, these had occurred at night, when few people were in the building.

A fire during the day would be catastrophic. Workers were jammed elbow to elbow amid heavy machinery, making a quick escape nearly impossible.
Even worse, there were only two narrow staircases leading to the street. City inspectors had reported these unsafe conditions, but Blanck and Harris did nothing.

Fires were a big problem in garment factories. It took only one tiny spark to ignite the piles of flammable fabric on the factory floor. There had already been several small fires at Triangle. Luckily, these had occurred at night, when few people were in the building.

A fire during the day would be catastrophic. Workers were jammed elbow to elbow amid heavy machinery, making a quick escape nearly impossible. And there were only two exits, each just a narrow staircase. City inspectors had reported these fire hazards, but Blanck and Harris did nothing.

Frantic Workers

Courtesy Cornell Kheel Center    

At about 4:45 p.m., Katie was in the dressing room, gathering her coat and hat. Tomorrow would be her only day off all week, and no doubt she was eager to leave the noisy, stuffy factory and get home.

But at that very moment, one floor below, a bin of fabric scraps had erupted in flames, likely the result of a cigarette carelessly tossed aside.

Instantly, the flames spread to the tables. Frantic workers threw buckets of water but the water did nothing to quench the blaze.

The fire kept growing, and within minutes, the flames had reached the ninth floor.

That’s when Katie heard the screams. 

At about 4:45 p.m., Katie was in the dressing room, getting her coat and hat. Tomorrow would be her only day off all week, and no doubt she was eager to leave the factory and get home.

But at that moment, one floor below, a bin of fabric scraps had burst into flames, likely the result of a cigarette carelessly tossed aside.

The flames spread to the tables. Frantic workers threw buckets of water, but that didn’t quench the blaze.

The fire kept growing. Within minutes, it reached the ninth floor.

That’s when Katie heard the screams.

Precious Seconds

Ducking out of the dressing room, Katie saw thick black smoke. She looked desperately for her sister Rose, but in the chaos, could not find her.

Choking on smoke, Katie rushed to the window and stuck her head out to breathe in fresh air.

“Fire!” she shouted.

Behind her, a throng of panicked workers surged toward the window, gulping for air. Fearing that she would be pushed out, Katie fought her way back through the crowd.

There had never been a fire drill at Triangle, and no one knew what to do. What Katie did know was that she needed to get out.

The two stairways were on opposite sides of the room. One stairway led to Greene Street and the other to Washington Place. Katie decided to go for the Washington Place exit.

But when she got to the door and turned the knob, the door wouldn’t budge. It was locked.

Precious seconds ticked by.

The inferno roared and crackled.

Ducking out of the dressing room, Katie saw thick black smoke. She looked for her sister Rose but couldn’t find her.

Choking on smoke, Katie rushed to the window and put her face out to breathe in fresh air.

“Fire!” she shouted.

Behind her, panicked workers surged toward the window, gulping for air. Fearing that she would be pushed out, Katie fought her way back through the crowd.

There had never been a fire drill at Triangle, and no one knew what to do. But Katie knew she needed to get out.

The two exits were stairways on opposite sides of the room. One stairway led to Greene Street and the other to Washington Place. Katie decided to go for the Washington Place exit.

But when she got to the door and turned the knob, the door wouldn’t budge.

It was locked.

Precious seconds ticked by. 

The Granger Collection, New York/The Granger Collection    

Trapped in the Blaze    

Those inside Triangle had mere seconds to make life-or-death decisions. Some workers climbed out onto the fire escape, but it was in disrepair and soon collapsed under their weight, sending them to their deaths on the ground below. Others ran up to the roof. They were the fortunate ones; a New York University professor in the neighboring building saw the fire. He and his students cleverly turned a ladder into a bridge that enabled the trapped workers to get safely from one rooftop to the other.

Many trapped in the blaze chose to jump from the windows rather than die in the fire. But it was a deadly 95-foot fall to the sidewalk.

 As those inside Triangle searched for a way out, down on the street, firefighters pummeled the building with water. Some lifted their ladders to give workers a way down, but the ladders proved to be useless—they reached only to the sixth floor.

As for Katie?

Turning away from the locked door, she saw the elevator.

This, she knew, was her chance.

During a fire, heat can damage elevator equipment and passengers can get trapped. Elevator operator Joseph Zito, 27, knew the risks. (Back then, elevators were not automatic; they had to be operated by a person.) But Zito was determined to save as many workers as he could.

And so he took the elevator up and down, again and again. With each trip, he did not know if the flames would spread into the elevator or if the elevator would get stuck, baking everyone inside—including him.

This time, when Zito got to the ninth floor, Katie joined a swell of terrified workers pushing their way inside. But there were too many people. Katie couldn’t wedge herself in. As the elevator began its descent, Katie knew in her heart it would not come back. The fire was now too strong.

If she stayed where she was, she was doomed.

So she dove.

Reaching out, Katie grasped the thick wire cable that ran up through the elevator car. She landed on the heads of the workers inside. Her face smashed into the tangle of bodies. Her feet stuck out the door, smacking painfully on each floor as the elevator went down. She cried out, but if anyone heard her above the screaming, there was nothing they could do.

Those inside Triangle had only seconds to make life-or-death decisions. Some workers climbed out onto the fire escape. But it was in disrepair. It collapsed under their weight, sending them to their deaths on the ground. Others, including Blanck and Harris up on the 10th floor, ran up to the roof. They were lucky: A New York University professor in the neighboring building saw the fire. He and his students turned a ladder into a bridge that allowed the trapped workers to get from one rooftop to the other.

Many trapped in the blaze chose to jump from the windows rather than die in the fire. It was a 95-foot fall to the sidewalk. None survived.

Down on the street, firefighters pummeled the building with water. Some lifted their ladders to give workers a way down. But the ladders proved to be useless—they reached only to the sixth floor.

As for Katie?

Turning away from the locked door, she saw the elevator. This, she knew, was her chance.

During a fire, heat can damage elevator equipment and passengers can get trapped. Elevator operator Joseph Zito, 27, knew the risks. (Back then, elevators were not automatic; they had to be operated by a person.) But Zito was determined to save as many workers as he could.

He took the elevator up and down, again and again. With each trip, he did not know if the flames would spread into the car or if the elevator would get stuck, baking everyone inside—including him.

This time, when Zito opened the doors, Katie joined the workers pushing their way inside. But there were too many people. Katie couldn’t get in. The elevator began its descent. Katie knew it would not come back. The fire was now too strong.

If she stayed where she was, she was doomed.

And so she dove.

Reaching out, Katie grasped the thick wire cable that ran up through the elevator car. She landed on the heads of the workers inside. Her face smashed into the tangle of bodies. Her feet stuck out the door, painfully smacking on each floor as the elevator went down. 

The Granger Collection, New York/The Granger Collection 

The Destruction: Though the building itself was fireproof, everything inside the Triangle factory was destroyed.  The photo shows the inside the Triangle factory after the fire.

The Trial    

The fire engulfed three floors in 18 minutes. It claimed the lives of 146 people—most of them teenage girls and young women, and nearly all of them immigrants.

Katie was fortunate. Diving into that elevator saved her life. But tragically, Rose did not survive.

As news of the fire spread across New York, people were outraged by what had clearly been a preventable tragedy. How many would still be alive if the door hadn’t been locked? If the factory had basic fire safety features? If the owners had bothered to have a fire drill?

A large crowd gathered at the Metropolitan Opera House to demand better fire safety laws—and justice for Triangle victims. On April 5, some 120,000 people joined a solemn funeral march through the cold and rainy streets to remember those who had perished.

A few weeks after the fire, Blanck and Harris were charged with manslaughter. During the trial, their lawyer did everything he could to discredit the survivors. He insisted they speak English instead of speaking their native languages and using translators. He wanted to make it difficult for them to tell their stories.

But Katie would not be intimidated. In court, she delivered scathing testimony about the locked door on the ninth floor, shaking the door of the courtroom to make her point.

In the end, the jury did not convict Blanck and Harris. It was proved that the Washington Place door on the ninth floor had been locked, but no one could prove that the two men had personally locked it on the day of the fire. Someone else, the jury decided, could have locked the door without the owners’ knowledge.