Frances Perkins on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Frances Perkins, September 30, 1964:
Cornell University - ILR School: Al Smith had never heard the words New Deal, he was governor of the State of New York, he had been in the legislature before. As a member of the legislature he was the majority leader he could have appointed anybody he wanted to the factory investigating commission, but he had himself appointed to the factory investigating commission so that he could see with his own eyes what was going on. As he said, this is too raw, we can't have any mistakes here, we can't make any blunders and I am going to sit there myself, I am not going to turn this over to somebody else. So he appointed himself to the factory investigating commission in 1911 which was the year of the great Triangle Fire in New York City, a terrible industrial accident which burned out the contents of a 9th and 10th floor loft building factory where they made light cotton shirt waists for women.
It caught on fire and the blaze spread very rapidly. There was only one means of exit available, the other two means of exits were the elevator which was ablaze almost immediately as the flames got into this open shaft and spread from floor to floor and the second exit was locked. It was an exit to the roof, not a very good means of exit at best but it would have saved most of the people in that building if it had not been locked.
It had been locked by the employer himself because he feared that on a Saturday afternoon which he was working just before Easter on a lot of shirtwaists for the market, he feared that some of the people in the shop might stroll out over the roof exit with a few shirtwaists rolled up under their jackets or that somebody might come in and take a few shirtwaists. In other words, he was - I only know what he said on the stand - he was afraid he would be robbed either by his employees or by the outsider. Not so much by the outsider, mostly afraid of his employees. I remember the judge in righteous indignation reproached him for his attitude toward his employees. It may have been a perfectly legitimate attitude. He may have lost goods that way, one doesn't know, but it was at least bad judgement to tell it to the judge on that particular occasion.
At any rate, this was a terrible accident; 147 young people, they were all young men and women, were killed, lost their lives and a number of others were badly injured. Some of them were injured after the fire in the elevator shaft had gone out. Of course the boys that ran the elevator had gone, they had fled. Some of the people tried to get out by jumping into the elevator shaft and grabbing the cables and letting themselves down that way. Some of them fell, some of them were awkward and didn't grab right, don't you know, and couldn't hold on. Some of them merely blistered their hands, took the skin and flesh off their hands coming down on the cables and there were a number of people sadly injured. Everybody who jumped, and a good many did jump from the 9th and 10th floors, was killed. The other people who died were all people who were burned or smothered by the smoke in the factory itself.
This made a terrible impression on the people of the State of New York. I can't begin to tell you how disturbed the people were everywhere. It was as though we had all done something wrong. It shouldn't have been. We were sorry. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! We didn't want it that way. We hadn't intended to have 147 girls and boys killed in a factory. It was a terrible thing for the people of the City of New York and the State of New York to face.
I remember that, the accident happened on a Saturday, I happened to have been visiting a friend on the other side of the park and we heard the engines and we heard the screams and rushed out and rushed over where we could see what the trouble was. We could see this building from Washington Square and the people had just begun to jump when we got there. They had been holding until that time, standing in the windowsills, being crowded by others behind them, the fire pressing closer and closer, the smoke closer and closer. Finally the men were trying to get out this thing that the firemen carry with them, a net to catch people if they do jump, there were trying to get that out and they couldn't wait any longer. They began to jump. The window was too crowded and they would jump and they hit the sidewalk. The net broke, they fell a terrible distance, the weight of the bodies was so great, at the speed at which they were traveling that they broke through the net. Every one of them was killed, everybody who jumped was killed. It was a horrifying spectacle. We had our dose of it that night and felt as though we had been part of it all. The next day people, as they heard about it in all parts of the city, they began to mull around and gather and talk.
I remember that Al Smith, who was not a governor at that time but a member of the legislature, a majority leader in the assembly, found that many many of these young people were residents of the same district he was a resident of and he did the most natural and humane thing. As he said: Why I did it just as I would if they had died of anything else, you know, you go to see the father and mother to try to help them. He went to the places where they lived; he went to the tenement they had occupied to see their father and mother and tell them how sorry he was or their husband, as the case might be, or their wife, to tell them of his sympathy and grief. It was a human, decent, natural thing to do and it was a sight he never forgot. It burned it into his mind. He also got to the morgue, I remember, at just the time when the survivors were being allowed to sort out the dead and see who was theirs and who could be recognized. He went along with a number of others to the morgue to support and help, you know, the old father or the sorrowing sister, do her terrible picking out....