A total of 146 people died in the deadliest fire on a factory floor premises. The building had numerous well marked exits, stairways outside the building to be used exclusively at a time of such a fire and two freight elevators. However, many unfortunate workers trapped on the ninth and tenth floor could not use the escape routes because of flames.
A few of the workers did reach the roof to use the staircase leading down to the street below. Most of them were female immigrant workers with meagre means and even lesser standing and influence in the society. Several of the female workers jumped down to escape flames, just to be crushed to pulp on reaching the pavement below. The first to jump were a man and a woman, who kissed each other and jumped together. They chose their death in unison rather than be devoured by the flames in isolation.
The fire drew a large crowd of spectators who saw the images and smell of burning human flesh as it swept past the street intersection below. They were all appalled. Women went hysterical. Men wept incessantly, hurling themselves onto the police lines formed to control the crowd. Men on the street ran out and found wooden coffins to place the bodies of the victims. As the fire and smoke clogged the streets below it became unbearable to even stand in the area around the building,but the crowd continued to provide help and support.
Later, horses and people draped themselves in black as they held the funerals and processions. In the heavy days and weeks that followed, the whole city grieved, one by one, painstakingly identifying each deceased, sorting out the belongings of the dead and returning it to the relatives. Every feeling heart reeled in grief. Numbed by a single thought, the atrocity could have been averted.
The fire broke out near end of the working hours on March 25, 1911. The Triangle Waist factory was located on the eighth, ninth and tenth floor of a ten-story building in Greenwich Village, in New York. The people demanded restitution and mechanism that would safeguard the vulnerable in the society.
The workers thronged the union quarters to offer testimonies, support action, and demanded that Triangle owners be brought to trial. The owners were tried for manslaughter after a few weeks of the incident. The weakness of the prevenient eighteenth century justice system provided enough loopholes for the owners of the triangle waist factory to get away with paying $75 per victim. This apparent failure of the justice system further galvanised the people to ensure it never happened again.
The fire became a watershed moment in labour rights, union laws, and industrial safety apparatus. In New York, the first commission on public safety was formed. The majority leader of assembly and senate championed the cause of public safety. The factory investigation commission was formed. It held public hearings in major cities distributing questionnaires to gauge the extent of the safety issues in every major city. This led to landmark reform in labour laws in the US. New laws required better building access, clearly marked exits and escape routes, fireproofing, installation of fire alarms and automatic water sprinklers to extinguish random fires before it got out of hand. It also led to better working conditions for women and children and limit on total number of working hours.
Six months after the day, the American Society of Safety Engineers was formed precisely as a result of the Triangle Waist factory. The society now has 151 chapters, 40 sections and 65 student sections located in 75 countries.
The fire that occurred more than a hundred years ago has spawned around 200 worker unions. These unions get their mandate from the Triangle Fire incident. The commemoration each year draws thousands of people who hold flags with the names of the victims inscribed on them. The site of the Triangle Fire has been donated to the New York University and has been turned into a commemorative museum. Several museums and art galleries are devoted to remembering and extending the reach of the incident.
Firefighters have been the most cherished and well-loved public servants in the western society. No cost is spared to provide the firefighters with the best possible equipment to do their heroic job. Fire departments are not inherently cost intensive or technology dependent. It is about civic responsibility – the core pillar of democratic societies. The Emperor Augustus established a public fire department more than two thousand years ago, ironically composed of 600 slaves distributed amongst seven fire stations in Rome.
Horse carriage driven fire trucks with similar organisation as modern fire departments have efficiently streaked through the streets of cities including London and Boston for well over 400 years. Horses were specially bred and trained to be confident around smoke and fire to serve in the fire departments. The pedestrians and horse carriages would scamper to the corner of the streets as soon as they heard the familiar bells of fire trucks.
Nations, like people have character and conscience. They also have temperament: it is a barometer of how nations emotionally react to events? Whether they collectively express anger and how long do they remain enraged. Are they fickle, and blow hot and cold at every whim? Or the temperature rises steadily to reach a crescendo where the clamor for restitution sways national policies and gives birth to institutions.