Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later



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NEW YORK, October 10, 1911
Present - HON. ALFRED E. SMITH, Vice-Chairman.

ABRAM I. ELKUS, Counsel to the Commission.
BERNARD L. SHIENTAG, Assistant Counsel.

The act creating the Commission was read by Vice-Chairman Smith.

The VICE-CHAIRMAN: The Commission being present and ready to proceed, we would like to hear from counsel.

MR. ELKUS: We all regret, of course, that Senator Wagner, by reason of his illness, is unable to be present and act as chairman of the Commission.

It is unfortunate that the occurrence of a catastrophe is often necessary to awaken a people to its true sense of responsibility. The Triangle Waist Company fire of March, 1911, with its attendant horrors and loss of life shocked both city and State. The loss of one hundred and forty-three lives in one factory fire brought to the attention of the public with terrible force the dangers that daily threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of...

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...employees in manufacturing establishments in the City of New York and elsewhere throughout the State.

Public attention was directed not only to the dangers which threaten employees because of inadequate fire-escape facilities, and because of the lack of precautions against fire, but also to the less obvious but greater menace of sanitary conditions.

[DELETED: Mr. Elkus continues his opening comments and asks Mr. Gompers to make a few remarks, at which point, the examination of witnesses commences.]

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MR. ELKUS: With your permission, Mr. Chairman, we will call Mr. Croker as the first witness.

EDWARD F. CROKER, called as a witness, being first duly sworn, testifies as follows:

Direct examination by Mr. ELKUS:

Q. Chief, will you tell the Commissioners just how long you have been in the Fire Department, what positions you have held, etc., so that we may have it upon the record? A. I was appointed fireman June 22nd, 1884, and went through the various grades of the department from time to time, until I arrived at the position of Chief of the department; I served in that capacity for twelve years and retired May first of the present year.

Q. During that time, did you make any study of the conditions of manufacturing in New York City, from a fireman's standpoint? A. I did, sir.

Q. Will you tell the Commissioners, briefly, just what occurred during that time that you were in the Fire Department - the changes that occurred, in the methods of manufacturing, the kinds of buildings formerly used, and the kind that are used at this time? A. The building formerly used, say twenty years ago, was the ordinary four and five story brick building, wooden floor beams, wooden floors, etc., up to the present class of buildings.

Q. There were no elevators in the old buildings? A. Very few; stairways ere used - wooden stairways, not elevators.

Q. Did they have fire-escapes - were they fireproof as a rule or not? A. No, sir. They have gradually improved to the so-called fireproof building, which consists of buildings that you are all probably acquainted with around New York to-day, from twelve to twenty-five stories high.

Q. These buildings from twelve to twenty-five stories are what are called loft buildings? A. So-called loft buildings.

Q. They vary in size from twenty-five feet wide to one hundred feet deep, or more? A. The average is fifty to seventy-five feet.

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Q. Wide, and the depth eighty-five or ninety feet? A. Yes, sir.

Now, in these loft buildings, there are usually a great many occupants, are there not? A. Generally there is a different occupant on each floor.

Q. And in some of the buildings is manufacturing carried on on each floor? A. Yes, sir.

Q. Will you give us an idea of the kinds of different occupants - the different kinds of businesses that will be found in a ten or twelve story building of the kind that you have referred to? A. Manufacturers of ladies' shirt waists, manufacturer of ladies' underwear, manufacturer of ladies' cloaks, manufacturer of ladies' suits, and the manufacture of clothing.

Q. All under one roof? A. All under one roof.

Q. Can you tell me whether or not these people use machines - many of them power machines? A. They all use machines; yes sir.

Q. How many employees are there in these buildings - in these buildings that you refer to? A. Anywhere from 150 to 300.

Q. On each floor? A. On each floor.

Q. So that sometimes in a ten-story building you will find the extreme would be, say, twenty-five hundred persons in one building? A. Yes.

Q. That would be almost a town in itself? A. (No answer.)

Q. Are these lofts open, or divided off by partitions - what kind of partitions are they? A. Most are open lofts, and they are divided off - if they are divided off, they are divided by 3/8 inch pins.

Q. Now, about the material used in the manufacture of goods in these buildings that you refer to - what about that? A. All inflammable.

Q. Now, about the method of egress in ingress in these buildings - what is there so far as elevators are concerned? A. It all depends upon the size of the building.

Q. Just tell us. A. Take a 50x100 foot building. If it is on a corner, it will probably have two stairways, one on each street, and a passenger elevator.

Q. Will you describe the location of the stairs with references to the elevator? A. The stairway is generally built around the elevator.

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Q. They wind around the elevators? A. They wind around the elevators.

Q. Now, as a rule, are the staircases divided from the elevator by walls and partitions? A. some are and some are not.

Q. Now, will you tell us about your experience in these buildings, if anything is done as a rule to protect them from fire? A. Generally there is nothing done. They use the waste, oils and such things as that; oily waste especially is very combustible.

Q. I believe a great many of these employees smoke cigarettes and cigars? A. It is almost impossible to stop it; a cigarette is a tonic.

Q. They consider it a tonic? A. They consider it a tonic.

Q. Tell us about the fire-escapes - of the things you have seen? A. Very few of the factories have outside fire-escapes; very few; they have very few outside fire-escapes, and where they have them they are inadequate. They use the stairways. They call those things the fire-escapes; they also use the elevators, and they call them fire-escapes. An elevator in a building is generally a fire shaft.

Q. Do you mean to say that under the law they can permit an elevator to be called a fire-escape? A. They don't permit it to be called a fire-escape, but they use it as such and mark it as such.

Q. In the case of fire? A. In the case of fire.

Q. Aren't they required in a ten-story loft building to have exterior fire-escapes? A. It lies within the discretion of the Superintendent of Buildings - that is, in what they call a fireproof building.

Q. In other words, if a building is fireproof, the Superintendent may not require them to have exterior fire-escapes; and in that case they are allowed to use the elevators and stairs? A. Elevator and stairs.

Q. In these various buildings where there are exterior fire-escapes built, access is had to them from the window? A. Yes, sir.

Q. What has been your experience, Chief, with reference to the use of these fire-escapes in case of fire? Are they used at all? A. A great many will use them, but they are not used to advantage. Women, and especially children - girls, such as work in these buildings, cannot descend them.

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Q. They cannot get down on them? A. Not readily.

Q. Is it your idea if they are to continue, they should be made with a regular staircase? A. With regular staircase, and made to extend away from the building - not close to the building.

Q. How far away? A. At least four feet.

Q. Is there any other suggestion that you have to give the Commission as to the use of fire-escapes? A. There have been some cases where fire-escapes, by being very crowded, have pulled away from the building. Fire-escape should be built into the building by having the floor beams extend out to the proper width.

Q. That is, the beams should extend out from the building and the fire-escapes supported on them? A. Supported on them.

Q. Now, about the terminus of a fire-escape - what has been your knowledge of that? A. A great many terminate in a court or in a rear yard, and it is absolutely impossible for the occupants to escape when they go down that far.

Q. That is, after they get down the fire-escape, they are in an enclosed yard? A. In an enclosed yard.

Q. What have you to suggest as a remedy for that? A. They should extend to, or have an entrance direct to the street; and in a great many cases, where the window is would make the best fire-escape by putting a door there, and running a bridge from one building to the other.

Q. From one roof to another? A. Or out to another street.

Q. From the rear of one building to the rear of another? A. By running a bridge.

Q. That would be very inexpensive? A. Yes, make a very good fire-escape.

Q. That means getting permission, of course, of both parties, does it not? A. I believe so.

Q. With reference to the window or door leading to the fire-escape, should the window be cut down and made a door? A. Yes, sir.

Q. That should be made to open inward or outward? A. Outward.

Q. And that should be made compulsory; is that your view? A. In all these cases, it should be mandatory. I find in my experience in and around these buildings, that a great majority of the people who occupy the various establishments would rather take a chance on the loss of life than spend five or ten dollars to prevent it.

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Q. Is that your experience? A. Positively.

Q. How about the shutters leading to the fire-escape? A. They should not be allowed.

Q. They should not be permitted? A. No, sir.

Q. A fire-escape window or door leading to the fire-escape be constructed? A. They should be set in metal frame.

Q. Do you recommend that? A. Yes, sir.

Q. Now, Chief, about the occupation of these buildings. In your experience in fighting fires, what have you found to be the condition of these buildings so far as their occupation is concerned - material and machinery on the floors - just tell the Commission what your experience has been. A. Some buildings you go into are kept nicely, but the majority of others you go in are unkept; they are dirty; they are unclean; their stock is strewed all over the floor. Where they use machinery there are no passageways whatsoever.

Q. Tell the Commission about the difficulties in fighting a fire of that kind. A. In a great many cases there is only about one door on that loft you can get in. Goods are piled up in front of the windows, in front of the doors, and you have got to use a battering ram to get into any of them.

Q. How about the passageways being blocked? A. Piled right to the ceiling. Many a time the firemen get into places in the night time and there is no room for a man to go through the passages.

Q. How about the passageway to a fire-escape? Do you find those blocked or open? A. Find them blocked.

Q. How about locked doors to the staircases? Have you found that? A. Oh, yes, plenty of them. The doors going to the roof are locked. They pay absolutely no attention to the fire hazard or to the protection of the employees in these buildings. That is their last consideration.

Q. What do you suggest should be done with reference to these locked doors, and things like that? A. There should be mandatory legislation to compel them to keep the doors unlocked during working hours. All doors should be opened up. Aisles should be kept...

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...clear, obstructions should be moved away from doorways, and windows and so forth; and in case of any violations of such a law there should be a severe penalty attached to it.

Q. Imprisonment or fine? A. You can't make it too heavy. You have got a class of people doing business constantly, not only in New York City, with whom you've got to deal severely, and give them to understand that there is the law, and they have got to obey it, for the protection of property and the people that they employ. If you don't have drastic legislation you can't get anything from them.

Q. What have you got to say about wooden partitions? A. If I had my say I wouldn't allow a piece of wood in sight in any buildings of any description.

Q. You mean in the shape of a partition or a table? A. In the shape of a partition, or window trims or door trims, or baseboards - nothing at all in the construction of a building should be of wood.

Q. Tell the Commission your reasons for that statement. A. The reason is because all wood is inflammable and it only adds fuel to a fire which may occur.

Q. Well, do you believe that there would be less loss of life if those rules were followed? A. I do, sir.

Q. Were you present at the fire of the Triangle Waist Company building? A. I was, sir.

Q. And you made a careful investigation of that fire, did you not? A. Yes, sir, I did.

Q. Now, just a word about that. Was that a loft building of the kind you described? A. Yes, sir

Q. How many stories high? A. Twelve stories.

Q. And this fire was on one or more floors in that building? A. It originated on the ninth.

Q. And they had an out-door fire-escape there, didn't they? A. On the rear.

Q. And it led down into an enclosed yard? A. It led down into an enclosed yard.

Q. What did you ascertain were the facts there with reference to closed doors. A. Well, from what we could find - what was left of that place up there - I don't think there was any doubt there was a partition inside of the doorway leading out into the Green Street

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side of that building, and from the indication of the number of people we found where that partition was, that door was locked, and the door that opened into it, opened on the inside.

Q. Was it locked with a lock and key, or a bolt? A. A lock and key, but it opened in.

Q. Was it a wooden door? A. Yes.

Q. Now, you referred in you testimony to the fireproof building. What has been your experience as to these buildings being actually fireproof? A. They are only so-called fireproof, fireproof by name.

Q. What is the actual fact, do they burn or not? A. They are not fireproof. They burn and they make a hot fire.

Q. Who says they are fireproof? That is a provision of law, isn't it? A. A provision of the law.

Q. Then, as I understand you, Chief, the materials which go into making these buildings do not make a fireproof building? A. No, sir.

Q. Well, is it possible to create, to erect a fireproof building? A. Yes, sir.

Q. Of what material would it be? A. Brick, stone or terra cotta. Steel construction with metal trim and concrete floors. I would say eliminate wood, and use the steel trim and the concrete floors.

Q. Well, as I understand you, what makes these buildings known as fireproof buildings, non-fireproof is the fact that the trim of the interior floors are wood or inflammable material. A. Yes. Now, bear in mind the fact, counsellor (sic), that the shells of these buildings may be brick and steel, and that they are advertised as fireproof, just to fool the public. But the inside of the building contains inflammable material and burns with great intensity.

Q. So that when a fire occurs the inside of the building burns out and leaves the shell which is fireproof? A. Yes.

Q. And it is your recommendation that if they want to have a fireproof building, a building that is absolutely fireproof, they should not have any lumber in it? A. Yes, sir.

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Q. Now, can any reliance be placed upon these elevators as fire-escapes? A. No, sir.

Q. Why not? A. Because they can only carry a very few people in the first place, and they burn up quickly and the heat and smoke become so intense that the operator can generally make only one or two trips after a fire starts.

Q. After a fire? A. After a fire starts, and it has been my experience that in the excitement, after they leave the floor in which the fire occurs, they generally leave the door open, and people walk into the elevator shaft.

Q. That is to say they leave the door open and unguarded, and people fall down the shaft? A. Yes, sir.

Q. Now in this Asch Building fire did that occur or did the people jump down the shaft as a means to try to escape? A. Well, we found them in the shaft. We don't know how they got there.

[DELETED: pp. 21-35 of Croker's testimony.]

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Q. With reference to saving life after a fire occurs, the Department does use fire nets, doesn't it, where people have to jump? A. Yes.

Q. Have those proved useful, or are they not strong enough, or have they been able to make them strong enough? A. They are made as strong as they know how to make them, and they has (sic) been very satisfactory. We have never had one failure up to the Asch building.

Q. What happened there? A. They went through the net.

Q. What was the reason of that? A. The extreme height.

Q. That is because the bodies came from such a height the net could not held them, or did the material give way, or did the people who held the nets? A. Both; they all went in a pile together. It would be impossible to hold those people as they fell there; when they hit the sidewalk or iron gratings, the impact of their bodies was so great they drove right through the iron gratings into the cellar.

Q. Just describe to the Commission the fire nets used at the Asch fire. They are held by how many people, and how large are they? A. They are ten feet in circumference, and they are held by ten or twelve men, or more if you can get them around it, and you can catch - I have seen people time after time jump from the fifth, sixth or seventh floor and not get a scratch.

Q. In this case, although they were held by the same number of people, and the material was strong enough - strong as it could be - by the way, what are they made of? A. The best canvas that can be purchased, and they are hung on springs. When you strike into the net you do not get a sudden jar, but get a spring effect. The rim is heavy steel.

Q. In the Asch fire the net went right down with all the people holding it? A. Yes.

Q. From the impact of the bodies? A. Yes.

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Q. Have you any suggestion to make to the Commission with reference to the different kinds of fire nets which would hold this impact of the body? A. I do not think they could manufacture anything that would stand the impact of a body from that height.

Q. Would it be possible to have a fire net on poles, for instance, that would give enough way to it, so that a body coming from a great height would be able to sag enough without breaking? A. The time you get that erected and ready for the people to jump, they would be burned to death. You have to have something for immediate use. They ought to have something there they can get at in case of necessity before the arrival of the Department.

Q. That is to say, there ought to be a way of getting out before the Department got there? A. Oh, yes; you cannot wait. Like the Asch building fire, they could not wait until the arrival of the Fire Department, even if we had the appliances. They were jumping out of the windows before the department arrived.

Q. So that as a practical matter if people are obliged to jump out of the windows of a loft building which is over five or six stories in height, there is no way of saving their lives? A. Well, I won't say five or six.

Q. I say above five or six, or seven or eight? A. Seven or eight stories high, if they jump, I don't know of anything you can manufacture that will hold them. I saw it figured out for a body weighing 150 pounds, they struck over two tons from that height when they hit the sidewalk. I don't know but it was over that.

[DELETED pp. 36-39]

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Q. The Building Department is responsible that the building is safe, and that the floor has the carrying capacity? A. The fault in New York City is that there is nobody responsible for anything. The Fire Department is not responsible; the Building Department is not responsible; the Police Department is not responsible; the Health Department is not responsible. If anything happens they are all stepping from under.

Q. In other words, when anything happens, each one blames it on the other department, and it would be your idea, and your recommendation to the Commission, that the responsibility should...

Page 40 fixed upon some one particular head of some one department? A. Yes.

Q. And at the same time give him the corresponding power? A. The Asch Building fire started with the Fire Department. The Fire Department says, "Our records are all right; everything we ordered was complied with." The Building Department says, "Our records are all right." The Health Department says, "Our records are all right." The Police Department have not got through investigating yet, and I don't think they ever will and nobody is responsible. There are just as many factories in New York in the same condition as the Asch Building was and probably is today.

New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1912, 3 vols. (Albany, New York: The Argus Company, printers, 1912), 2:5-6, 14-21, 35-36, 39-40.

Sweatshop conditions in the early 1900's