Fire Escape

triangle shirtwaist fire

Civic disasters in the pre-regulation days of the early 20th century are on a scale I find hard to comprehend, but the thing that shocks the most isn’t the loss of human life, it’s the careless way it was thrown away.

The 145 lives lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York were largely caused by nobody having taken the time to think about them. The factory, located in the top three floors of the Asch Building, was a real sweatshop, the employees mostly young non-English-speaking immigrant girls, their workplace cramped lines of sewing machines. From four elevators, only one was in working order, and it was at the other end of a long, narrow corridor. There were no sprinklers, because the factory owners wanted to keep open the possibility of burning down their building for the insurance money, something they had done twice in the previous decade.

The fire started in a rag bin. An attempt was made to put it out, but the hose was rotted and the valve was rusted shut. As the fire rapidly spread employees were crushed in the stampede, the one elevator stopped working, and those lucky enough to find their way down a fire escape found a locked door at the other end. The fire brigade, when they arrived, could not help the workers trapped on the roof, their ladders only reaching to a floor below, and their nets breaking when multiple girls tried jumping into them.

These horrors turned out to be enough to turn public opinion firmly toward the regulation which would have saved the girls’ lives. You could perhaps say that it’s necessary for these things to happen for things to really change, but it would be better if we could find a way as a society to act before rather than after for once.

Two podcasts on the fire. This one from Stuff You Missed In History Class gives a great overview of the fire (and as always, too many ads) and this from 99% Invisible gives an insight into the ways that the risk of fire now informs building design.

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