Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later


Max Hochfield

Job: Operator

8th floor

Interview: January 20, 1957

I came to this country in December, 1910. My father thought that being an operator was the best trade in the world, and he insisted that my sister take me up to the Triangle Waist Co. But she wanted me to learn plumbing, or to become an electrician -- a man's work.

After working about two or three weeks with her, I became quite skillful.

It happened that, at that time, my sister met a young man, and they were engaged to be married.

At that time we made an engagement party for my sister on Sunday night. It lasted until about twelve o'clock in the morning. Naturally we couldn't go to work the next day. And when we didn't come to work the next day our machines were given to somebody else. When we came to work on Tuesday we were sent to the 9th floor to work.

Maybe if my sister wasn't engaged, she would be alive today.

At that time most of the people in the shop were foreigners.

As I recall, the fire started on the 8th floor just about quitting time. I never waited for the elevator because the elevators were too crowded and most of the time they got stuck.

My sister knew that her boy friend was waiting for her downstairs, so she went into the dressing room.

I suppose I went over to the elevator. I heard some noise, so I thought to myself "I guess the elevator is out of order again," I walked down the stairs from the 9th to the 8th floor, I saw the entire 8th floor aflame. Nobody there. When I looked toward the windows I saw people coming down the fire escape, I stopped and looked, I was confused, I couldn't understand. This was the first time I had ever seen a fire.

I wanted to go back and get my sister, but as I turned back there was a fireman. He grabbed me by the shoulder. He says "What are you doing here?" I said "I want to go back. My sister's up there, I have to save my sister!" He says "You had better go down if you want to stay alive."

I went down to the 7th floor. I still wanted to go back, but I couldn't any more because the flames were all over in the hallway, I stayed for awhile as the girls came down the hallway. I thought maybe one of them would be my sister.

The fireman ordered me down, and when I came out on the street I saw people jumping from the windows.

My sister was burned to death. She was so badly burned we couldn't identify her, but her boy friend did identify her. My sister's name was Esther Hochfield. She was about 20 years old at the time. I worked at the Triangle only three months, but she had worked there about three years. She was one of the strikers at Triangle in 1909.

We hardly ever saw the main boss, Blanc. They had a lot of foreladies.

I don't know how the fire started on the 8th floor, but I can tell you that if the door on the 9th floor had been opened I think most of the people would have been saved. There were two exits, but they kept the door locked because every night, when we went home, each girl had to open her pocketbook showing the man that she didn't steal any lace or trimmings. There were very few men on the 9th floor, and perhaps if there had been more they would have tried to smash the door with a machine.

Nobody warned them.

The floors were wooden floors and, in places, were soaked with oil. The work baskets were wicker baskets. At each machine, and in each basket, there were the parts of from four to five dozen blouses.

We went to look for my sister the next day. We looked for her for a whole week.

Nobody ever questioned me about the fire. No one was interested.

After the fire I was afraid to work for awhile. Even today -- when I go to a theatre, or movie, or any crowded place -- I want to make sure the place is fireproof.

I joined Local 25 in that same year -- 1911. The firm planted spies at the meetings we held after the fire. These people were also working people, and I understand they got good pay. Then, at the trial, these people said we were coached what to say at the trial.

I was called as a witness, but all I was asked was my name and how long was I in this country. I was ready to tell them the whole story. I asked for an interpreter, but I was told that I was doing all right. They cut the questioning short, of course, because they knew that I had lost my sister and they didn't want to ask me any questions.

Let me tell you a secret. As far as pay was concerned, it was better there than in other shops.

I wanted to take revenge on the firm. I thought of an idea. I didn't have any money. I thought, where can I get money to buy a gun. And I thought to myself, I'll go up to Local 25 -- I think, at that time, Baroff was manager -- and I had expected that someone there with some authority would give me money. And I am going to buy a gun, and I am going to shoot these guys.

Then we had to collect a week's wages. It was announced in the papers that they opened up a new factory in the same neighborhood. We were supposed to get the wages. So I figured it out that I would go to collect the week's wages I was sure the bosses would be there, and I was right. They were there -- and the little manager too,

I met one of the clerks from the union, I saw there was nobody around. I confided to him the secret I was carrying in my heart. I can't let it go by. Now is an opportunity for me to get revenge on them. If I can only get a-hold on a gun. He listened to me, and he said: "Look, don't do it. You're a young fellow. I know you lost your sister. Take my advice. Don't do it. It wouldn't do you any good. It wouldn't do us any good. Forget it!"

Still in all, if I had any other source of getting money and knew where to buy a gun, perhaps I would have gone through with my plans.

I saw the floorlady of the 9th floor stand in the window waving her pay envelope. But she didn't have the courage to jump.