I worked as a cutter on the 8th floor by the table near the wall. I cut linings and trimmings like cuffs, but on that day I was cutting points out of cut-a-ways. I already punched my time and was walking across the floor when Eva Harris (she was the boss' sister) told me that she smelled smoke. On the tables, the cutters were working on lawns and voiles only. The way we worked, we laid only one ply from each piece of nice goods. There was no matching. We stretched it out for the whole table and with rest of the roll of piece goods remaining at end of the table. When we were finished cutting up the lay, we just rolled off some more. We had no electric cutting machines. The big cutting was done with a straight knife working through a slot in the table. Most of the cutting was done with a short knife and these cutters, they were regular artists, they could cut up to 120 ply with a short knife.
My mother had paid Morris Goldfarb, he was the "Starke" and worked at the cutting table. She paid him $25 to take me up to work. I was supposed to work for nothing but they started me with $3 and after three weeks they raised me to $6 a week. This was good pay. This was good because we also got $.15 an hour for overtime.
I had my pay. I stood in the middle of the floor - it was made of wood. The sides of the cutting table were boarded up to within 6 inches of the top. They were left open on the top so that the cutters could throw in the cut-aways.
Once in a while the cut-a-ways were cleaned out but they piled up under the table.
I stood in the middle of the floor but when Eva Harris told me she smelled something burning I looked at the cutting tables. I saw through the slot the red flame.
Goldfarb was not in the shop that afternoon. He had worked only a half day.
There was a partition on the freight elevator side and a shelf was against this partition. On this shelf there were about 8 or 10 pails of water, not very fresh - in fact they looked slimy. I began to throw the water, pail by pail into the tables.
I threw the pail of water and the flame seemed to push out from under the table right on the table. I looked around for more water. I remembered that there might be some more nails near the front elevator. I began to run across the shop to the front. I stooped, looked back and saw in a flash that I would never make it. It was no use. The flames were reaching to the ceiling.
I ran to the freight elevator on the other side of the partition. By the time I got there the flames were already curling along the ceiling. The partition was burning. We got down on our hands and knees and crawled along the floor to the freight elevator. The entrance to the staircase next to the freight elevator was opened. I remembered one time I went with a basket of cut work from the 8th floor to the 10th floor and I tried to walk down the front staircase, the door to the 8th floor was locked and I had to walk up and get around the other way again. I was about 17 yrs old.
I remember one cutter hollering, "Oh, my knife" and ran back to get it and came back with his ear singed.
We crouched and got out the freight staircase. On Greene St. the bodies had already crashed through the deadlights.
Only a week before the company installed a "scriptograph".
The cutter used short knives only. The patterns and slopers were brass bound.
I think it was Mary Levinthal - she was a pretty girl. Everybody loved her. I've never been able to forget - maybe I could have saved her. She came down from the 9th floor only a few minutes before the fire. She said to me, "Joe I have a few girls coming in on Sunday. Can you give me a couple dozen cuffs." She took 3 or 4 bundles. Why didn't I hold her back. If she had stayed with us she would have escaped with us. She died on the 9th floor.
When I got to the street the firemen were running into the hallway. I watched the fire from across the street. The firemen could have been killed by the falling bodies. I saw one girl on the 10th floor creep along the ledge from window to window. When she came to the last window she sat on the ledge and slowly stepped off. Everyone that jumped was on fire.
It was easy to identify some at the morgue because many had jumped with arms around their faces. I have been through wars but I never saw anything as terrible as what I saw at the morgue.
I lived on 11th St. The word spread through the whole East Side that our shop brent. They could even see the smoke. I didn't think my mother would worry. One of my friend bumped into me on the street and said go home, your mother is worried.
I remeber I saw some husky American Express driver bent over with agony when they saw the bodies falling next to them.
I went to the funeral.
The freight elevator took a couple of loads down.
The floors were very oily.
The baskets were made of straw.
We cut 144 ply high with short knives.
Harris had a way of sneaking into the dressing room and looked through our pockets to see if he could find union receipts.