March 25: fireproof but not deathproof

2012/03/25 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1911 fire broke out in the Asch Building in New York.

The ten-story building, completed in 1901 by architect John Woolly for Joseph J. Asch, was standard in many ways: not spectacular but pleasant enough, with a gridded facade of brick panels and terra cotta details, average windows, a bit of Classicism tucked into the upper level by means of the tenth floor’s arcade.  Its sturdy structure of iron and steel was wrapped in terra cotta, making it a fireproof building, in that the structure was absolutely non-combustible.  If it had been just fifteen feet taller, building regulations would have prohibited its wooden floors and window frames and would have required a sprinkler system.  At just 135 feet, it was subject to some scrutiny by building commissioners rather than non-negotiable building codes.  Facing some criticisms against the design, architect Woolly was able to make a case for its safety, citing the plan’s exterior a fire stair and interior hoses on each floor as being “sufficient,” and the commissioners agreed.

Yet a decade after its opening, conditions at the company were, to say the least, insufficient to stave off the tragedy wrought by the fire that began in one of the workrooms of the Triangle Waist Company, makers of popular shirtwaist garments.  Triangle’s policies had  already prompted a strike in 1909 against the firm, which responded by firing 150 Union sympathizers.  In 1911 its managers followed common practice at the time by preventing theft and unauthorized breaks by barring access to the stairwells, ensuring that workers stayed at their work for their full pay period, six days per week, in a room crowded with furniture, wicker baskets full of muslin scrap, tissue paper patterns hanging from the ceiling, machine oil stored near stairways.

The stuffing of the Shirtwaist floors was a banquet for the fire that broke out just ten minutes before the end of the work day, spreading so quickly that one witness described the blaze as “an enormous roaring cornice of flames.”  Fire was first detected on the eighth floor; workers on the tenth were warned by phone but there was no way to reach those on the ninth.  The man who held the key for the locked stairwells fled for his own safety, as did the company’s executives.  Machine oil containers burst into flame, blocking the single interior exit stair on one level.  The 17″ wide iron fire stair in the building’s courtyard soon warped under the weight of all the people clambering onto it, stopped in their efforts when the first to reach the bottom found that the final piece of ladder down to the ground had never been installed.  The entire stair wrenched itself from the building, casting dozens to their death in the crush below.  Each of two passenger elevators, which measured less than 30 square feet each, delivered some people to safety before heat, smoke, and the impact of fallen bodies on their roofs made them inoperable.  with no way out, scores of people either huddled in corners awaiting their death by smoke or flame; others leapt from the building. Initially the numbers of bodies in the street prohibited the fire equipment from negotiating the roadway.  Women, some of them described as living torches with their hair and dresses aflame, jumped in such numbers that the firemen’s life nets ripped under their weight.  There was little else they could do, as their ladders and hoses were too short to reach the uppermost levels of the buildings, where the flames could also not be quenched from the interior due to the rusted valves and rotten hoses of the building’s own fire suppression system. All told, 146 people, the great majority of them young women, died in the flames or from their fall from the inferno.  It was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city.

Public shock, horror, and outrage led to the trial of Shirtwaist’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris.  The pair were first acquitted, then in a second trial forced to pay benefits of $75 for each death–a tad under $11,000 to compensate for 146 lost lives.  Their insurance company paid out $200,000 for the lost merchandise and damage to the structure, which was soon repaired and the partners back in business.

The much more positive outcomes of the fire took the form of public and government action on behalf of reform of labor laws and building codes to prevent the recurrence of such a disaster.  The Triangle fire was specifically noted in the 1911 Report of the State Fire Marshal, who pushed for better safety precautions in high-occupancy buildings of any height, recognizing that the non-combustibility of structural components is irrelevant when facing loss of life: “the contents of fireproof buildings are not [fireproof] and, in the nature of things, never can be fireproof and when the contents of a building burn, death by suffocation or flame is bound to be the fate of the inmates or occupants unless adequate means of escaping therefrom are provided in advance.”  A dramatic retelling of the fire that appeared in the June 1911 issue of Hampton’s Magazine includes serious comment on necessary reform for building codes and fire drills, making the important distinction in building safety: “Deathproof versus Fireproof.”

The Asch Building has a new name and is now part of the NYU campus.  It remains a dreadful monument of extreme tragedy, a landmark for reform that came too late for many (but hopefully on time for many more), a reminder to stay vigilant (if not just mad as hell) against abuse of the many by a privileged few.

More information: read the excellent report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission

Clio endorses the American Experience program

Image: the worst deathtrap in the sweatshop, the ninth floor (from this source)

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§ 2 Responses to March 25: fireproof but not deathproof

  • Susan Barsy says:

    For details of the fire that I have never read, I thank you.

    Reading this brought to mind the novel “Time & Again,” a great read for anyone interested in Gilded Age history. It’s a historical time-travel book (written, I think, by the same person who wrote “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) in which the protagonist slips back into late 19th century NYC. It is very vividly written and includes an account of what it would be like for a modern person to watch a fire of the kind you describe.

    • Clio says:

      Thank you for the recommendation. Clio has no need for such things (her life story is “been there, inspired that”), but her agent will. Her agent also might ask if you have read David McCullough’s account of the Johnstown Flood?

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