Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later



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NEW YORK, November 17, 1911

Present - HON. ROBERT F. WAGNER, Chairman,
HON. A.E. Smith, Assemblyman,
HON. C.W. Phillips, Assemblyman,
MISS MARY E. DREIER, Commission.


ABRAM I. ELKUS, Esq., Counsel to the Committee.
BERNARD L. SHIENTAG, Esq., Of Counsel.

WILLIAM L. BEERS, called as a witness and, being duly sworn, testified as follows:

Examination by Mr. ELKUS:

Q. Mr. Beers, were you fire marshal of the city? A. Yes, sir.

Q. Were you connected with the Fire Department, and, if so, for how long? A. I was with the Fire Department for twelve years, up to November 15, when I retired.

Q. During all that time were you Fire Marshall? A. Assistant Fire Marshall and Fire Marshall.

Q. What are the duties of the Fire Marshal? A. To investigate the cause and origin of fires, to prosecute those persons guilty of incendiarism or arson, and, under the charter, previous to the passing of the Hoey law, he had the investigating into such conditions as would cause or promote a fire, or injure a fireman in the course of his duties, and under certain conditions investigate the conduct of firemen at fires.

[Omitted pp. 572-579.]

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Q. Did you visit the Triangle Waist Company Building immediately after the fire? A. Yes, sir.

Q. Did you make an investigation? A. I was there all during the evening of the fire, and was there on the ground the next morning at nine o'clock.

Q. Tell us what you observed. A. The result of my investigation and the taking of testimony for ten days after the fire was that I was of the opinion that the fire occurred on the eighth floor on the Greene street side, under a cutting table, which table was enclosed and that contained the waste material as cut from this lawn that was used to make up the waists. They were in the habit of cutting about 160 to 180 thicknesses of lawn at one time; that formed quite a lot of waste, which was placed under the cutting tables, as it had a commercial value of about seven cents a pound.

Q. Was it boxed, or just placed on the floor? A. Well, the boards that were nailed on the legs of the table formed the box or receptacle.

Q. The outside of that receptacle was wood? A. Yes; it was all wood.

Q. How did the fire start there in that stuff? A. Well, we formed the opinion that it started from the careless use of a match from one of the cutters. They were about to leave to go home, and in those factories they are very anxious to get a smoke just as quick as they get through work.

Q. A man simply lighted a match? A. Yes; and carelessly threw it under there; then the attention of the occupants was called to it, and they tried to extinguish it before they rang in a fire alarm.

Q. Did you examine the fire-escapes of that building? A. After the fire.

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Q. What did you find? A. I found the fire-escape on the rear of the building, which was the only one, and was entirely inadequate for the number of people employed in that building.

Q. Why were they inadequate? A. Too small and too light, and the iron shutters on the outside of the building when opened would have obstructed the egress of the people passing between the stairway and the platform.

Q. How many people were there on the eighth floor? A. something over 250, as I recall it.

Q. How many sewing machines? A. There was a cutting department, and it was partially used for machines for making fine waists. About 220 persons were on the eighth floor, all of whom escaped.

Q. How did they come to escape? A. They went down the stairway and down the fire-escape, some of them.

Q. How about the ninth floor? A. The loss of life was the greatest on the ninth floor. There were about 310 people there.

Q. How many sewing machines? A. Two hundred and eighty-eight.

Q. Now, will you tell the Commission whether or not the place was overcrowded with the machines? A. Yes, sir. All the space that could be utilized there was utilized.

Q. Were any attempts made in that case to extinguish the fire? A. Yes, there were. They used fire pails there, and then attempted to use the fire hose.

Q. What happened to the fire hose? A. Well, they claimed they could not get any water to it.

Q. How about the fire pail, why did not that put out the fire? A. They did not get enough water to put it out. It spread very rapidly. The material is very inflammable, and it travels very fast, and the conditions were there, everything, to build a fire.

Q. How many fires would you say, Marshal, could have been prevented if ordinary precautions were used? A. You mean in the factories?

Q. Yes. A. I am not prepared to say, Mr. Elkus. I am of the opinion that the precautions that are used to safeguard these premises in the form of installation of fire-extinguishing apparatus would have a tendency to keep the fires down to a small size. All fires are...

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...of the same size at the start, and I think the loss and damage would be a great deal less by having available apparatus.

Q. In other words, while a number of these fires might start, if there were proper appliances, they would be prevented from amounting to anything but a very small fire? A. Yes; especially lives would be safeguarded.

Q. Lives would be saved, and money would be saved: A. Yes sir.

Q. What recommendations have you to make for legislation to the Commission with reference to the prevention of fires and the saving of lives, and also with reference to the spread of fires? A. Out of the city and in the city?

Q. Both. A. I think that all manufacturing establishments should have an interior automatic signalling device to call attention to fires when they occur, and they should also have an automatic extinguishing device in the form of sprinklers and of standpipes. Local fire drills should be compulsory and all the exits in factories should be marked, as in theatres, and the factory employees should be drilled the same as the crew of a ship is drilled. The fire station should be known, and the specific duties of each employee should be known in case of fire. That is, some of the men should be directed to get female employees out of the building, and the others should be directed to get the male employees together for the purpose of fighting the fire and holding it in check until such time as assistance came. I think that here in the city, all these loft buildings that are used for manufacturing purposes, the equipment should be standardized and should be as nearly fireproof as possible, and no tenant should be permitted to occupy a building of that kind without first filing a plan showing the way in which the manufacturing apparatus is to be installed, and that should be as near fireproof as possible; and he should not be permitted to fill up his building with a lot of combustible material without proper supervision. The number of persons employed in a given area should be specified and approved and the plan of the building, with the exits all marked, should be posted on the walls of the building, so that it would be there and the employees could become familiar with it, and know just where they are to go in case of fire. Smoking should be absolutely prohibited in such industries as shirt-waist making and light lawn dresses, or where any of those light inflammables are used, chiffons and veilings, straw goods, hat factories, or in any factory using a large quantity of material that is inflammable. I think, also, it would be wise to have lectures in the public schools, under the auspices of the Board of Education, instructing these employes (sic) what to do in case of fire, especially in schools located in these districts where the factory employees reside.

New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1912, 3 vols. (Albany, New York: The Argus Company, printers, 1912), 2:571, 580-583.

Sweatshop conditions in the early 1900's