Here are some Fractured Facts about the bad old days in New York City in 1911:
New York City Fire Chief Edward Croker was very up front about it: the ladders on his turn-of-the-century, horse-drawn firefighting vehicles could reach no higher than the 7th floor of the city’s growing number of high-rise buildings.
There were plenty of buildings with more than seven floors. The Woolworth Building, the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1913, had 60 stories.
In 1911 it’s estimated that half of New York’s office and factory workers—about 500,000 men, women and children—spent their work day at the 8th floor or higher.
I wonder how many of them knew that the city’s firefighters had no chance of rescuing them if they got trapped in a burning building?
On March 25, 1911, a fast-moving late afternoon blaze engulfed the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in lower Manhattan, destroying the 8th, 9th and 10th floor work areas. The company had routinely and illegally locked the exit doors to prevent theft and keep employees at their work stations. When the inferno burned out, horrified firemen counted 146 bodies—mostly young immigrant women—at locked exits or on the sidewalks below windows where the desperate victims had jumped to escape the flames.
Here’s part of the printed account by the New York World:
“ . . . screaming men and women and boys and girls crowded out on the many window ledges and threw themselves into the streets far below. They jumped with their clothing ablaze. The hair of some of the girls streamed up aflame as they leaped. Thud after thud sounded on the pavements . . .”
One battalion chief of Engine Company 72 had to order spectators to clear the sidewalks so they wouldn’t be injured by the jumpers.
Chief Croker retired on May 1 of that year.
The owners of Triangle Shirtwaist Company were tried for manslaughter, but a jury acquitted them in less than two hours.
Later, lawsuits resulted in approximately $75 per victim in settlements by the insurance companies.
Have you ever thought that a fire drill at work was a pain in the ass?
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present (1980; repr., New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 326-27.