At 3:40 p.m. Friday, Chicago time, it will be exactly 100 years to the minute since someone tossed a cigarette into a bin of scrap cloth on the 8th floor of the Asch Building on New York’s Lower East Side, touching off what for the last century has been known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.It was a Saturday, so only 600 of the usual 1,000 employees — 500 women and girls and 100 men — were working. Their 12-hour shift over, they had put their street clothes on, collected their pay envelopes — $6 a week — and were waiting for the bell.

Ten minutes later the place would have been empty.The fire raced through the 8th floor, fed by piles of lint, linen hanging on wires from the ceiling and oil stored in the open to keep the machines running. It spread to the 9th and 10th floors, sending panicked workers running to the two fire escapes. One was anchored to the outside of the building, down into the alley. The other was inside.

The building was 11 years old, considered both “modern” — it was served by four elevators — as well as “fireproof.” But the ladders between the levels of the outside escape were missing — those who fled there couldn’t get down. And the doors to the inside fire escape were locked, to prevent theft.

The first fire engine company to respond arrived in minutes, firemen dodging what at first they thought were bolts of cloth being tossed from the burning building. READ THE REST HERE

There are some fires in the annals of firefighting history that are so monumental that they are considered turning points. Jobs where things are never the same afterward. Those fires are usually so bad, the casualties so horrendous, and the loss so unbearable that things have to change in the aftermath. Triangle Shirtwaiste was one such fire. Sadly, the image of people jumping to their deaths on a New York Street in broad daylight would be repeated 90 years later at the WTC.

Triangle Shirtwaiste brought attention to sweat shops, safe working conditions, fire codes and child labor. Indeed, it was an era when unions truly were needed to bring about the worker protections we all enjoy today. Times have changed. There is a whole body of labor law and life safety codes that protects employees from the conditions that allowed a tragedy like Triangle Shirtwaiste. Ironically, the building is still there. Next time you are in New York and you have a chance, stop by and take a moment to remember the victims of that tragic fire. Remember them as we do today.


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