Learning from the past

September 14, 2012


Firefighters should be given similar professional training, lifesaving equipment and economic reward as those in the military or police. - Photo by AFP
Firefighters should be given similar professional training, lifesaving equipment and economic reward as those in the military or police. - Photo by AFP

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.

Events of outrageous proportions; either criminal negligence or acts of commission disturb normal life in every country in the world. It is how people collectively react to such discontinuities in normal life that define a nation. The fact that certain are democratic and others are not, is also a consequence of this national temperament. The places with a strong tradition of democracy have politicians trained in the art of tapping into the national emotional state. The political class provides a vent for the nation’s frustration and also a sounding board for its genuine need for constructive action.

On September 11, 2012 the deadliest industrial accident in Pakistan’s 65-year history shook the country. The fire went through the three-story building and killed 258 people in Karachi. Many died while banging on the exit doors, which were locked. Most of the windows were sealed with iron bars. Everyone was shouting, “God is great!” when some of them tried to smash open the windows. The same day a fire broke out in a shoe factory in Lahore killing 25 people.

These are not isolated incidents. Pakistan has a history of deadly fires. Sweatshops like the one in Karachi and Lahore, and cramped warehouses in bazaars frequently catch fire, invariably every time the building is burnt to the ground. Building codes and audits are simply not considered important. Even a random inspection on any street of the country can identify hundreds if not thousands of violation of safety regulations.

There is no logical reason for the gross violations. It is a mindset of ignorance, like not wearing seatbelts while driving. There are two aspects to fire control, fire detection and firefighting. Almost all fires can be easily managed and summarily put down in the early stages. This is precisely why smoke alarms and sprinklers are used. Early detection can eliminate more than 98 per cent of all fires before they get out of control. Smoke alarm is as much for the people inside the building to become aware of the fire as it is a call to action for local firefighters.

Small fires have completely different dynamics to raging flames. A simple spray of fire extinguisher would render it harmless. The soda-acid extinguisher was first patented in 1866 by French inventory Francois Carlier. The modern red coloured metallic cylinders universally used are cartridge-operated dry chemical extinguisher. This again relates to building codes and audits. Every corridor of all commercial/industrial buildings must have clearly marked fire extinguishers. Local industry can indigenously manufacture this cylinder that uses 150 years old technology. A strict requirement of displaying fire extinguishers would cause an initial surge of demand of these relatively cheap cylinders that can only be good for local economies.

On firefighting side, all buildings with more than two-story structure must have fire escape staircases at the back of the building. Clearly marking and ventilating egress points for all existing buildings and enhanced structural integrity and fireproofing for new ones, is the stepping stones of basic safety regulations.

These terrible accidents must become a watershed event of a nature similar to the Triangle Waist Factory incident in 1911 New York. There should not be a repetition of stoic apathy, where police case is registered, some resolutions are voted upon in the legislative assembly, debates are conducted on TV talk shows and then everything is forgotten and there is nothing concrete to show for it. Not only should those responsible be brought to justice through a fair trial but the electorate should hold the elected officials to account.

This must be made an opportunity for creation of public safety bodies, and improvement in city and municipal service delivery mechanisms. Firefighters should be given similar professional training, lifesaving equipment and economic reward as those in the military or police. Would it be reasonable to expect such a result from the latest traumatic incident in Pakistan’s history?

The author specialises in ‘risk analytics’ and has studied at MIT and BU, from where he received a doctorate in Operations & Technology Management.