The majority labored at sewing machines turning out clothing for which they were paid "by the piece." To encourage the seamstresses to stay at their machines and to inhibit stealing, company management routinely locked the exit doors.
The building was fireproof and the owners had put their trust in that. In fact, after the flames had done their worst last night, the building hardly showed a sign. Only the stock within it and the girl employees were burned.
In less than 20 minutes, 146 people, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls, were dead. The last six victims were officially identified just a few weeks ago.
The sewing factory employed more than 500 people, who worked long hours for low wages, in wretched and unsanitary conditions. They turned out “shirtwaists” — blouses with puffed sleeves and tight bodices popularized by the “Gibson Girl.”
The company ordered the doors be locked to prevent theft, making it almost impossible for most to escape, and fire truck ladders were too short to reach the floor where the workers were trapped. As onlookers watched, more than 50 jumped to their deaths from the windows.
Much of the tragedy that occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company could have been avoided, but a series of problems made survival near impossible for many trapped in the building. Garment workers had been toiling for years in sweatshops, and in the preceding years there were efforts to organize garment workers and improve working conditions.
On the 8th floor, flames suddenly leaped from a wastebasket under a table in the cutters’ area.
While workers frantically struggled with pails of water to douse it, the fire hopscotched to other waste bins and snared the paper patterns hanging from strings overhead.
After the fire, their story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms. For some, such as Frances Perkins, who stood helpless watching the factory burn, the tragedy inspired a lifetime of advocacy for workers’ rights. She later became secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Firefighters arrived at the scene, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the upper floors of the 10-story building. Trapped inside because the owners had locked the fire escape exit doors, workers jumped to their deaths. In a half an hour, the fire was over, and 146 of the 500 workers—mostly young women—were dead.
Triangle was one of the nation’s largest makers of high-collar blouses that were part of the shirtwaist style, a sensible fusion of tailored shirt and skirt. Designed for utility, the style was embraced at the turn of the century by legions of young women who preferred its hiked hemline and unfettered curves to the confining, street-sweeping dresses that had hobbled their mothers and aunts.