Time Heals Nothing

I originally wrote much of the following for a newsletter, for a professional audience. I’m cribbing from myself here to make it easier to editorialize.

The Triangle fire is one of the best known in American history. One hundred years ago today, the shop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building, facing Washington Square in New York, burned, killing 146 people. The Asch was a ten-year-old loft building and was considered to be modern design: the iron and steel frame of the building was fireproofed with terra cotta, and the building had two internal stairs and an exterior fire escape. Any fire this size would be tragic and studied for lessons about fire-protection; the central and visible location of the building and the fact that many of the people leaped to their deaths from windows more than 100 feet above the sidewalk made this fire infamous.

Despite rumors (then) and myths (now) that the stairway doors were locked, the deaths were mostly attributable to mundane failures: the wood doors at the fire stairs burned through, allowing heat and smoke to block their use; the fire-escape was partially blocked by unused iron fire shutters, and it failed under the weight of people packed in by the blockage; and the factory floors had tables full of cloth and tissue paper (the fuel for the fire) set up in long rows that prevented clear passage to the stairs. The elevator was used for egress until people on the fire floors forced open the shaft doors and jumped down, jamming the car in its tracks.

The structure of the Asch Building was not the most modern available when it was constructed in 1900, but it met the standards of the day for fireproofing. Those standards were not challenged by this fire: the basic structure of the building survived with little damage.¹ The only building elements that suffered significant damage were those that could be used for egress: the rear fire-escape, the internal stairs, and the elevator. The contrast between a structure that survived the fire with little real damage and the horrific death toll could not have been more clear.

The most recent major revision of the New York City Building Code before the fire was 1906. (The building itself was constructed under the 1899 version of the 1892 code.) That code contained a handful of vague requirements for egress, such as the statement that any building where “large numbers of people are congregated” was to have stairs, halls, and doors “arranged as the Department of Buildings shall direct to facilitate egress in case of fire or accident.” By contrast, the 1916 New York code had an entire section titled “Exit Facilities” that contained recognizably modern language defining the number of exist, their useable width, their construction, and their design loads based on the number of occupants in a given building.

The Triangle fire showcased gaps in the egress provisions of the building codes then in force, but also simultaneously showed how well the general structural provisions worked to protect the building against a fire. The fact that the Asch building survived with only minor damage attracted little attention because it was expected in an era that promoted “fireproof” construction. Chief Croker of the FDNY was quoted the day after Triangle as saying that modern buildings were “fireproof in name only” because of they lacked sufficient egress and access for fire-fighters.

Much of the current discussion rightly concerns labor organizing before and after the fire. Since there are people who are far more expert than I am, I’m going to simply mention that the fire was used as a rallying cry by the organizers and that there’s a direct line between the fire and the creation of the ILGWU and otherwise stick to what I know best.²

In the history of construction, this fire marks the moment when the concept of fire protection changed, to specific protection of people’s lives rather than only property.

The last survivor died in 2001, but the remembrances this year are as intense as any long anniversary I can remember. We want to think that the deaths of so many people must have a meaning, that lessons were learned…and they were, back then. The lesson was that the lives of laborers can be protected by their united effort and by government regulation, not by any goddamned invisible hand.

I’m not going to embed any pictures, out of an unease (certainly not squeamishness) that I can’t entirely define. Going to Google Images for ‘Triangle fire” will, I promise, show you more than you want to see.

¹Hilton Obenzinger’s poem on the Triangle fire contains a line “Only the furniture / the dress goods / and the employees / were destroyed.” The poem also has a young woman – a labor organizer – watching the fire and saying “I grab my throat and don’t let go.”

²I’m traveling all day today, but will answer any questions as best I can tonight.