On this day in 1911, 146 New York City garment workers (most of them Jewish and Italian immigrant women) perished as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire.
Doors to the stairwells and exits had been locked (a common practice at the time—managers thought it would stop theft and excessive breaks), leaving the women trapped—some died of smoke inhalation almost immediately, while others leapt from windows.
Josephine Nicolosi, a Triangle worker who managed to escape, describes the scene:
The bell was ringing to go home and I was getting up. I worked near the cutting table facing the tables. A little match was burning on the table and Sal Marchesi, a cutter, he hollered to me “Is a fire” - he used to joke all the time so I said, “You are always fooling, it is only a little bit of a match.” But he took a pail, one of the red pails of water and threw it on the match.
All of a sudden, as he threw the water, the flames shot up like an explosion. Right away the place was filled with fire and smoke and everybody was running around. I ran to the window and I was about to jump but I had not enough courage.
The girls were standing there hollering and crying and many of them said we can jump, they will catch us down there. I went back from the windows to the door.
Leo Brown, the machinist was by the door and he hollered to the girls, “Get on the side, I got a key.” I came up in back of him and held him from the back and when he opened the door, I went through with him.
There was one girl Vincenza Bellanti. She was engaged to marry my cousin Frank. I don’t know how she had the nerve to do it. They thought they would catch us. That is why so many opened the windows and jumped.
When we came downstairs, the firemen were not there yet but the first thing we saw were girls lying on the sidewalk. We thought they had fainted and one of my girl friends said, “Thank God we are not like them, we’re alright. She went over to one of the girls lying on the sidewalk and bent over her and she was hit by another falling body and killed.
The building, which still stands at 23-29 Washington Place, is a National Historic Landmark, and the fire was a catalyst for the founding of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and other groups that to this day advocate for safe, healthy working conditions.