Sweatshops were common then, and have never really been eliminated to this day. But business practices make it easy for overcrowded, unsafe work environments to exist. Employers commonly hired contractors, who in turn would hire the laborers. The contractors were paid by the company, but they could pay their laborers whatever they liked. They could also hire any number of people, so the company would never really know exactly how many people were working for them at any one time - or who they were. These laborers mostly consisted of very young, very poor women who had immigrated to the US. Often child labor laws were overlooked and very young children were added to the roster. Today similar conditions still exist, especially among illegal immigrants.
Conditions inside the sweatshop would be considered intolerable by most people. Rows and rows of people lined up back-to-back, with hardly enough room to sit, sewing clothes. Workers spending ten to twelve hours a day for only a few dollars a week sewing large quantities of clothing. Their own coats and hats were hung together on a wall or strewn beside them.
It's little wonder that once the fire had started it spread so quickly that people began to leap to their death before the first firetruck had even arrived.
No one knows what started that fire, but there had been other small fires in the past. In fact most of the Jewish workers had recently gone on strike in an attempt to get a safer work area. There were only 27 water buckets on hand to put out the fire, and only one outdoor fire escape - which collapsed while people were making their way down. There were two frieght elevators that people used to get to their floors, one of which apparantly wasn't working at the time. There was one stairway inside, but the doors opened inward, and when the crush of panicked escapees crowded into it, it slammed closed, trapping hundreds of people inside. The people on the lower floors had time to collect themselves and get the doors opened to safety. For people on the upper floors, it was already too late.
Before firefighters had a chance to get to the building, the fire was already so severe that women were crowded onto ledges, some making the decision to jump the eight or nine stories to the pavement below, others pushed out by the crowds of hysterical people behind them. As crowds drew up, they watched in horror as mostly girls from the ages of 16 to 23 climbed out onto ledges and jumped. There were some men inside, picking up women and tossing them out of windows, or standing on ledges doing the same. It seems that compared to the fire consuming everything inside, falling to the death was considered more humane. The elevator, which could only hold ten to twelve people, made several trips before breaking down, after which many people hurled themselves into the shafts in a futile attempt to save themselves from the flames. On the ninth floor, the door to the stairs was locked. Rescue workers later found piles of bodies melted against it.
When the firefighters arrived, they were dismayed to find that the water from their hoses only reached to the seventh floor, and their ladders also didn't reach the victims on the top floors. All the while people were still jumping and burning. It must have been something truly horrendous to witness.
In the end there was only superficial damage to the "fireproof" building, but 145 workers had lost their lives and more were injured.
The aftermath of those few hours would haunt the city for a very long time. There were too many bodies for the local morgue to handle, so temporary morgues were put up. People were lined up for long hours to identify the bodies of their loved ones - often so badly burned that only a ring or piece of clothing could identify them. At the end 7 bodies were still unidentified.
What good came out of this?
The legislature, horrified by the fire, set out an investigation of sweatshop conditions in the city. The results of their investigation led to the creation of the labor laws that we have today protecting factory workers.
The Fire Prevention unit was added onto the Fire Department to rid buildings of fire hazards. This led to reformations in fire codes. Among other things, doors must now open outwards and exits are not to be locked during working hours, companies must have a sprinkler system if they employ more than 25 people, and fire drills are mandatory for all buildings without a sprinkler system. Any one of these things could have prevented a large number of deaths.
The building itself still stands and is now part of the New York University.
Information mostly taken from:
The Triangle Factory Fire A great site with many newspaper clippings, photos, political cartoons and interviews. They also have a section especially for students.
History Buff. A good site to get a summary of what happened that day.
Apologies to anyone who wanted to post on this subject. Please feel free to add more about this. I'd love to hear more about what happened.
Also, I do seem lean towards fires, don't I? As time permits, I will eventually be posting about the Chicago Fire of 1871. I'm also hoping to soon cover the 1918 Influenza pandemic and the cholera epidemics of the 1800s and early 1900s. Those will be more time consuming for me, as my references are all books, and while they're more credible that way, it also takes longer to compile the information. Of course, should anyone want to post on those subjects, please feel free. It'll take the summary pressure off. ;)