Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later



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(Continuation of the October 10, 1911 hearing)

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G. I. HARMON, called as a witness, and being duly sworn, testified as follows:

Examined by Mr. ELKUS:

Q. What is your name, sir? A. G. I. Harmon.

Q. Are you an inspector in the Labor Department? A. Yes.

Q. How long have you been there? A. Fifteen years last August.

Q. How long have you been located in New York City? A. I have been here winters for the last five, six or seven years - I can't just tell you.

Q. Winters - where are you in the summer? A. Well, all about the state.

Q. What part of the state? A. All over, wherever they send me.

Q. Have you been assigned to a particular locality in the City of New York? A. Always, that is from one time to another.

Q. How long are you in one particular locality? A. Long enough to cover it.

Q. And then you go to another? A. Yes.

Q. In what section of the city were you located in the year 1911? A. 1910 and 1911, you mean, of course? Yes. A. I think my first assignment was on the corner of Astor Place, down Lafayette street to Fourth Street; across through Washington Square and back up.

Q. How many blocks was that? In that area? A. Nine, I think - possibly more, but I am not quite sure.

Q. And about how many buildings in the nine blocks? A. I cannot tell you.

Q. How many factories in the nine blocks? A. I cannot tell you that.

Q. How long were you inspecting those nine blocks in the years 1910 and 1911? A. I would have to refer to my books to tell you.

Q. Where are your books? A. At my home.

Q. Well, don't you keep your books in the office of the Factory Inspectors? A. No, sir.

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Q. Are you allowed to keep all your books at home? A. I keep my original books in my office always.

Q. Well, is that permitted by the rules of the Department, that the official records, original records are kept away from the Department office? A. That is the way we do; I don't know anything to the contrary.

Q. And how long did it take you to inspect these eight blocks? A. It is impossible to tell you without referring to my books.

Q. All winter? A. No.

Q. Did it take two months? A. I presume that it took me - now, this is simply a guess, two months.

Q. What were you doing the rest of the year 1910 and 1911? A. When I finished that block I was put into another section, simply transferred to another section. I had from 19th Street and Broadway and 14th street and Sixth Avenue.

Q. That was the next section? A. I think that was the next section.

Q. Well, now, we will say that it took you two months to examine those eight blocks. Was that the first time you had ever examined those eight blocks? A. That was the first time. I had worked a part of the lower section before.

Q. Now, when was it that you examined the Triangle building prior to the fire? A. The 27th of February.

Q. 1911? A. 1911.

Q. Now, when did the fire take place? A. Some time in March; I don't recall the date.

Q. Then you examined the building within two weeks of the fire or so? A. Well, I don't know whether it was two months or two weeks, but it was a very short time.

Q. Within a month we will say? A. Yes.

Q. What examination did you make of that building? A. I made a regular inspection of each factory in the building.

Q. What did that consist of? What did you do? A. I first go to the office and introduce myself. I get the data that I have to have - the number of people employed, men and women. If they have children there, I want to get their certificates, see their register, ascertain all the information in the office, then get someone to go with me and go through the factory. If they...

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...have machinery, look at the machinery. In the Triangle building underneath the table I found cuttings there, and then I looked into the sanitary conditions, examined the toilets, to see that there are enough of them, and that they are clean, and the number employed there, to see if there are enough of them. I see that they have a dressing room if they have girls employed. If they have a fire-escape, I see that the windows to the fire-escape are open and free, raise them and try them. If there are doors to the halls I open the doors and see that they are unlocked. I look into the general sanitary condition of the entire building, the care of sinks and water, and see that their drinking water is all right.

Q. How long did it take you, for instance, to examine the Triangle Waist building. They have three lofts? A. Yes.

Q. How long did it take you? A. Possibly an hour and a half to two hours.

Q. And were any of aisles which led to the fire-escapes blocked by material? A. No. The aisles that lead to the fire-escape, you mean? Between the machines, you mean?

Q. Yes. A. Not that I recall. If there was, I made a note of it. I may have made a note of it in my book, and I may have not. The only way I could tell is by referring to my book.

Q. Were any of the doors locked which led to the stairs? A. They were not.

Q. Did they have locks on them? A. Yes.

Q. Before you went around to examine this factory, you went to the office and asked for someone in authority and told them your business and what you were there for? A. Yes.

Q. So that they had plently (sic) of time to remedy any defects that existed temporarily while you were there? A. Yes.

Q. So, as far as the locking of the doors was concerned, for even material in the aisles, that might have been hastily cleaned up or remedied for the moment? A. That might have been.

Q. Well, don't you think it would have been better and a fairer examination if you didn't tell them who you were, and just walked through? A. Well, in the first place, it is sometimes difficult to get into a place of that kind without telling them who you are.

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Q. Well, I mean if you had no difficulty in getting in? A. Well, you have to get a certain amount of information.

Q. Do you mean about the number of employees, how many men and how many women and so forth? A. Yes. You go into a perfectly strange shop that you were never in you life, and you would be pretty near lost unless you asked questions of somebody.

Q. You wouldn't be lost in trying to find where the staircase was, and whether doors were locked or not? A. You have got to find a lot of other things; you have got to find the toilets and the dressing rooms, and you have got to find a lot of other things; you have got to find the toilets and the dressing rooms, and you have got to find if they have children employed, you have got to call upon and find the children.

Q. You can ask any employee where they are? A. Sometimes you get an answer and sometimes you don't. Some of them are foreigners.

Q. And it may become necessary to have someone who understood a foreign language with you? A. I do -- I take an interpreter very often.

Q. You, of course, could just as well get this information about the number of people in the factory afterwards as you could in the beginning. You see what we are trying to point out, Mr. Harmon, is that these conditions which exist in factories are not discovered because the inspectors inform somebody in authority that they are there, and the persons in authority know what you are looking for. Now, take the question of filth, you discover that in many cases, haven't you? A. Why, yes.

Q. And it looks, when you discover it in factories, to be pretty permanent? A. Well, as a rule.

Q. And you order that it be cleaned? A. Yes.

Q. And whether they comply with your order you generally don't know, do you? A. Well, that depends on where I am, and what the conditions are. Sometimes I stayed there until they complied with that -- right there.

Q. And then they may go right back into the same condition? A. I think they do, in a shop of that kind.

Q. Well, what do you suggest can be done there? A. Why, my experience is that when that man has been made an example of, that he doesn't require so much attention afterwards.

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Q. That is the only thing you have to suggest? A. I am talking about a man keeping his shop clean.

Q. Well, now, go back to this particular Triangle Waist Company loft. Did you discover any violations of the law when you were there at all? A. Yes, sir, I did.

Q. What did you discover? A. Well, the shafting under the machine tables was not guarded; that is, a portion of it was not guarded, and part of it was. They had no dressing rooms for the girls, that is, that complied with the law, and the lights in the halls were inadequate.

Q. That is, the lights in the hall which went downstairs? A. Yes, the hall should be kept lighted.

Q. Did you find the doors leading to the stairs opening inward? A. They all opened in, every one of them.

Q. Did you report that to the Department? A. I did.

Q. Did you order it remedied? A. I did not. In my judgment it wasn't practicable to open out into the hall because the halls were too narrow, and I so reported.

Q. Did you order sliding doors put in? A. I did not.

Q. Did you order a vestibule door put in? A. I did not.

Q. Do you realize that if those doors had not opened inward there might not have been such a loss of life? A. Well, the idea of sliding doors is new since. Yes, I realize that. I know that. I knew that before. The doors should swing out.

Q. How wide were the spaces between the wall and the end of each row of machines where the employees had to walk in order to get to the doors or fire-escapes? A. Well, you are asking me questions that it is hard for me to answer. The only thing that I can rely on is the record I have in my book, and my book makes no record of anything of that kind at all.

Q. Didn't you bring your report here with you? A. Yes, I have it.

Q. Well, look at it. A. That does not show what you are asking; it doesn't show the space between the end of the tables and the wall.

Q. The space there ought to be wide enough for the employees to pass through easily in case of fire or in ordinary cases of panic? A. Yes.

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Q. Isn't it a fact that the space was only eighteen inches? A. Between the end of the table and the wall?

Q. Between the end of the table and the wall. A. Well, between the end of the table and the wall on the Washington Place side that may be possible.

Q. Well, that is where they have to go, these employees had to go? A. I beg your pardon. They had to go the other way to get out, they had to pass between the tables. At the end of the table on the north side of the building, what is known as the north side of the building, there was ample room there, there was no aisle there, and they used the Greene Street stairway, they didn't use the Washington Place Stairway.

Q. Couldn't they use the Washington Place stairway in case of fire? A. Yes.

Q. Wasn't it your duty to see that there was adequate space for the employees to reach either staircase, whether Washington or Greene Street in case of fire or other hazardous cause? A. Well, yes, it is my duty, yes.

Q. Well, then, didn't you find that the space leading to the Washington Place stairs between the end of the tables and machines and the wall was only eighteen inches, and that that was inadequate? A. I did not measure the space, but I think that that is about right.

Q. And that was an inadequate space? A. Well, that depends altogether on conditions. That is an adequate space for people not in a hurry.

Q. Well, when there is a fire, people are in a hurry and your duty was to examine this space to find out whether the people could get out in a hurry? A. I know, but there were other ways besides that aisle, that 18-inch aisle.

Q. I know, but doesn't the law require you to find that every way out is a proper way? A. If you can show me that in the law, I would be glad to see it.

Q. Doesn't the law require you to inspect and find out that proper space is given to every egress in case of fire, and that the ways are not blocked or impeded? A. It doesn't say egress, it says exits. As I understand the meaning of the word "exit," it is a window or door which leads to the fire-escape.

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Q. Then you don't agree with me. Let me understand now, if I am right -- that it makes not difference, according to your contention, whether the way to the stairs is blocked or not. You have nothing to do with it? A. Oh, yes. Now, you are not getting that fairly.

Q. I don't want to be unfair to you. A. The way to the stairs is not to be blocked, and I wouldn't allow it to be blocked.

Q. Well, have you any authority there? A. If I could stop it I would not allow it to be blocked. It is quite a question in my mind how far my authority goes there.

Q. Have you ever asked for instructions from your Department upon it? A. Well, the matter has been talked over. It is one of the things where you are supposed -- it is a case where you are supposed to use your good judgment.

Q. Now, if the aisles to the stairs were blocked absolutely --- A. I would order them cleared out.

Q. And if they were blocked partially, so as to make them inadequate for a number of people in a hurry, wasn't that your duty to report it? A. I did report it.

Q. Didn't you report that there were only eighteen inches space? A. I did not.

Q. How many people were employed in the Triangle Waist Factory? A. About 400 man and women -- 150 men and 250 women.

Q. Understand, I don't want to be in the least unfair to you. I wouldn't for anything. Now, what else did you discover? You started to tell me some violations of the law you discovered there when you examined it. What else did you discover? Was there any dirt on the floor? A. No dirt, except the natural refuse from the wok that they were doing.

Q. Was there any more than would be there from one day's work? A. That is all.

Q. Were the employees smoking? A. Well, I saw stains on the table where cigarettes had laid.

Q. The marks of the cigarette? A. In that particular case I saw nobody smoking there. I have reported that to the employers time and again, of seeing men smoking in shops, because I know it is a mighty dangerous habit.

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Q. Was there anything else that you discovered? A. Only the things that I told you, the dressing room, the shafting unguarded under the tables, and the lights in the hall.

Q. When did you make your next inspection? A. I haven't been there since.

Q. Did you notice whether these doors that opened inward had locks on them and keys in the locks? A. The Washington side did. I don't know whether the Greene Street side did or not. The employees used that side, you know; they used it going up and downstairs.

Q. It was open all the time? A. They were going back and forward all the time, going downstairs.

Q. Was the door which led to the elevator also open? A. Yes, and the elevators were on the Greene Street side, three elevators on the Greene Street side and two elevators on the Washington Place side.

Q. Now, where the doors were not swinging open -- the door which opened inward -- did you notice whether or not the man who took you through turned the key and opened the door that way? A. They didn't unlock the door at all. A girl took me through, a young lady out of the office. They were very busy and sent the telephone girl with me.

Q. Well, didn't you go back in this case to see whether or not the violations which you found were complied with? A. I did not. They were turned over to another deputy.

Mr. ELKUS: That is all. Any questions from the Commissioners?


New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1912, 3 vols. (Albany, New York: The Argus Company, printers, 1912), 2:242-249

Sweatshop conditions in the early 1900's