Illustration of flames bursting out of the windows of a building as water is sprayed to put it out
Art by Gary Hanna
Out of the Flames

The story of the Triangle factory fire and the girls who changed America

By Kristin Lewis
From the February 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will analyze details that will help them understand a historical tragedy and its consequences.

Lexile: 600L-700L, 700L-800L
Guided Reading Level: U
DRA Level: 50
Topics: History,
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Key Details

As you read, pay attention to the details that help explain why the Triangle factory fire was such a terrible disaster.

Flames clawed at her back. Black smoke chokedthe air. Waves of red-hot fire curled across theroom and licked up the walls.

It was March 25, 1911, and 17-year-old Katie Weiner was trapped on the ninth floor of aburning building in New York City.

Moments earlier, fire had broken out at the factorywhere Katie worked. Now the flames were spreadingwith lightning speed. With the fire swirling closer andcloser, Katie had to make a terrible choice: Stay anddie—or dive into a moving elevator and hope to survive.

She dove.

Early that morning, Katie had made her way through the streets of the Lower East Side, the neighborhood in New York where she lived with her mother, brother, and sister.

Katie was headed to the Triangle Waist Company, where she and her older sister Rose, 23, worked making shirtwaists. These fashionable women’s blouses were all the rage at the time. Like many teenagers in 1911, Katie did not go to school. She had to work to help support her family.

Almost everyone on the Lower East Side had come from another country. In the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of immigrants were streaming into the United States every year. Katie’s own family had come to New York City from Russia when Katie was about 5. They had faced violent religious persecution in their home country. And so, like many others, they had come to the U.S. with the dream of a better life.

But newcomers quickly learned that things were not nearly as rosy as they had expected. Life was tough. Families had to cram into tiny apartments. Most worked long hours in dangerous jobs for little pay. Feeding their families was a constant struggle.

Flames clawed at her back. Black smoke filled the air. Red-hot fire curled across the room and up the walls.

It was March 25, 1911. Katie Weiner, 17, was trapped on the ninth floor of a burning building in New York City.

Moments earlier, fire had broken out at the factory where Katie worked. Now the flames were spreading fast. The fire came closer and closer. Katie had to make a terrible choice: Stay and die, or dive into a moving elevator and hope to survive.

She dove.

Early that morning, Katie had walked through the streets of the Lower East Side, the neighborhood in New York where she lived with her mom, brother, and sister.

Katie was headed to the Triangle Waist Company, where she and her older sister, Rose, worked making shirtwaists. These women’s blouses were all the rage at the time. Like many teens in 1911, Katie did not go to school. She had to work to help support her family.

Almost everyone on the Lower East Side had come from another country. In the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to the United States every year. Katie’s own family had come to New York City from Russia when Katie was about 5. They had faced religious persecution in their home country. And so, like many others, they had come to the U.S. with the dream of a better life.

But newcomers quickly learned that things were not as rosy as they had expected. Life was tough. Families had to cram into tiny apartments. Most worked long hours in dangerous jobs for little pay. Feeding their families was a constant struggle.

LEWIS WICKES HINE/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/CORBIS/VCG VIA GETTY IMAGES

New York City’s Lower East Side, around 1915

Coming to America

From 1830 to 1940, some 40 million immigrants streamed into the U.S. Many settled in New York City. The Lower East Side, where Katie lived, became home to many immigrants. By 1900, the Lower East Side was one of the most densely populated places on Earth.

Triangle Waist Company

About a mile from the Lower East Side stood the Triangle Waist Company, one of New York’s largest clothing factories.

When Katie arrived there on March 25, she took an elevator to the ninth floor of the 10-story building. It was a large room packed with 288 sewing machines, plus a small dressing room and a bathroom.

As the elevator carried Katie up, she could not have known that she was about to become caught in a deadly fire that would change her life—and America—forever.

About a mile from the Lower East Side stood the Triangle Waist Company, one of New York’s largest clothing factories.

When Katie arrived there on March 25, she took an elevator to the ninth floor of the 10-story building. It was a large room packed with 288 sewing machines, plus a small dressing room and a bathroom.

As the elevator carried Katie up, she could not have known that she was about to become caught in a deadly fire that would change her life—and America—forever.

Death Trap

Along with about 500 other workers, Katie spent at least 10 hours a day, six days a week, working hard to make trendy shirtwaists. These button-down women’s blouses were so popular that the owners of Triangle—Max Blanck and Isaac Harris—had become very rich. They were even nicknamed “the Shirtwaist Kings.”

But workers like Katie made only about $8 a week. And their bosses were always looking for an excuse to pay them less. If Katie pricked her finger and dripped blood on the fabric, the cost of the ruined material could be taken out of her pay.

At that time, factories like Triangle seemed almost like prisons. Doors were locked to keep workers from taking breaks. If you went to the toilet, a supervisor would follow to make sure you didn’t take too long. Most times workers weren’t allowed to talk, sing, or even laugh. Bosses were known to shout at and insult workers. If you didn’t work fast enough, you could be fired.

And, as Katie would soon find out, the factory itself was a death trap.

Along with about 500 other workers, Katie spent at least 10 hours a day, six days a week, working to make shirtwaists. These button-down women’s blouses were very popular. The owners of Triangle, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had become rich. They were even nicknamed “the Shirtwaist Kings.”

But workers like Katie made only about $8 a week. And their bosses were always looking for an excuse to pay them less. If Katie pricked her finger and dripped blood on the fabric, the cost of the ruined material could be taken out of her pay.

At that time, factories like Triangle seemed almost like prisons. Doors were locked to keep workers from taking breaks. If you went to the toilet, a supervisor would follow to make sure you didn’t take too long. Most times workers weren’t allowed to talk, sing, or even laugh. Bosses were known to shout at and insult workers. If you didn’t work fast enough, you could be fired.

And, as Katie would soon find out, the factory itself was a death trap.

COURTESY FASHION INSTITUTE OF NEW YORK/SUNY

The Triangle Waist Company produced shirtwaists, which were as popular as jeans are today. And at $1 a shirt, they were affordable enough that most women could buy one.

Fire Hazards

Fires were a major problem in garment factories. It took only a tiny spark to cause a fire in one of the many piles of flammable fabric that crowded the factory floors. In fact, there had already been several small fires at Triangle. Fortunately, these had occurred at night, when only a few people were in the building.

A fire during the day would be a disaster. Workers were jammed elbow to elbow amid heavy machines. This would make it nearly impossible to escape quickly. Even worse, there were only two narrow staircases leading to the street. City inspectors had reported these unsafe conditions, but Blanck and Harris did nothing.

Fires were a big problem in garment factories. Piles of flammable fabric covered factory floors. Just one spark could set them on fire. There had already been some small fires at Triangle. Luckily, these had occurred at night, when only a few people were in the building.

A fire during the day would be a disaster. Workers were jammed elbow to elbow amid heavy machines. This would make it nearly impossible to escape quickly. Even worse, there were only two narrow staircases leading to the street. City inspectors had reported these unsafe conditions, but Blanck and Harris did nothing.

KIRN VINTAGE STOCK/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Frantic Workers

At about 4:45 p.m., Katie was getting her coat and hat to go home. But at that very moment, one floor below, a bin of fabric scraps had burst into flames. Someone had probably tossed a cigarette in the bin without realizing it.

Instantly, the flames spread to the tables. Frantic workers threw buckets of water, but the fire kept growing. Within minutes, the flames had reached the ninth floor.

That’s when Katie heard the screams.

At about 4:45 p.m., Katie was getting her coat and hat to go home. But at that moment, one floor below, a bin of fabric scraps had burst into flames. Someone had probably tossed a cigarette into the bin by mistake.

The flames spread to the tables. Frantic workers threw buckets of water, but the fire kept growing. Within minutes, the flames had reached the ninth floor.

That’s when Katie heard the screams.

EVERETT COLLECTION INC/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Women Fight Back

In 1909, female garment workers united to protest their awful working conditions. Some 20,000 women went on strike in New York City, meaning they refused to work until their demands were met. They marched, held rallies, and gave speeches.

Not all their demands were met, but at Triangle, Blanck and Harris agreed to raise wages, shorten the workweek, and not fire workers for joining the union. (A union is an organization of workers formed to help them get better pay and improved working conditions.)

Precious Seconds

Katie looked desperately through thick black smoke for her sister Rose. But in the chaos [KAY-ahss], she could not find her.

Choking on smoke, Katie rushed to the window and stuck her head out to breathe in fresh air.

“Fire!” she shouted.

Behind her, panicked workers ran toward the window, gulping for air. Fearing that she would be pushed out, Katie fought her way back through the crowd.

There had never been a fire drill at Triangle, so no one knew what to do. What Katie did know was that she needed to get out.

The two stairways were on opposite sides of the room. One stairway led to Greene Street and the other to Washington Place. Katie decided to go for the Washington Place exit.

But when she got to the door, it wouldn’t budge. It was locked.

Precious seconds ticked by.

The inferno roared and crackled.

Katie looked through thick black smoke for her sister Rose. But in the chaos [KAYahss], she could not find her.

Choking on smoke, Katie rushed to the window and stuck her head out to breathe in fresh air.

“Fire!” she shouted.

Behind her, workers ran toward the window, gulping for air. Fearing that she would be pushed out, Katie fought her way back through the crowd.

There had never been a fire drill at Triangle, so no one knew what to do. But Katie knew she needed to get out.

The two stairways were on opposite sides of the room. One stairway led to Greene Street. The other led to Washington Place. Katie headed for the Washington Place exit.

But when she got to the door, it wouldn’t budge. It was locked.

Precious seconds ticked by.

The inferno roared and crackled.

Trapped in the Blaze

Those inside Triangle had only seconds to make life-or-death decisions. Some workers climbed out onto the fire escape. But it soon collapsed under their weight, and everyone fell to the ground below. Others ran up to the roof. They were the lucky ones. A New York University professor in a nearby building saw the fire. He and his students cleverly turned a ladder into a bridge. The trapped workers used it to get safely from one rooftop to the other.

Many trapped in the blaze chose to jump from the windows rather than die in the fire. But it was a 95-foot fall to the sidewalk.

As those inside Triangle searched for a way out, firefighters down on the street flooded the building with water. Some lifted their ladders to give workers a way down, but they reached only to the sixth floor.

Meanwhile, Katie was still struggling to get out of the building.

Turning away from the locked door, she saw the elevator.

This, she knew, was her chance.

During a fire, heat can damage elevator equipment. Passengers can become trapped. Elevator operator Joseph Zito knew the risks. (Back then, elevators were not automatic; they had to be operated by a person.) But Zito was determined to save as many workers as he could.

And so he took the elevator up and down, again and again. With each trip, he did not know if the flames would spread into the elevator or if the elevator would get stuck, trapping everyone inside—including him.

This time, when Zito got to the ninth floor, Katie joined the terrified workers pushing their way inside. But there were too many people. Katie couldn’t wedge herself in. As the elevator started down without her, Katie knew in her heart it would not come back. The fire was now too strong.

If she stayed there, she wouldn’t live.

So she dove.

Reaching out, Katie grabbed the thick wire cable that ran up through the elevator car. She landed on the heads of the workers inside. Her face smashed into the tangle of bodies. Her feet stuck out the door, smacking painfully on each floor as the elevator went down. She cried out, but if anyone heard her above the screaming, there was nothing they could do.

Those inside Triangle had only seconds to make life-or-death decisions. Some workers climbed out onto the fire escape. But it collapsed, and they fell to the ground below. Others ran up to the roof. They were lucky. A New York University professor in a nearby building saw the fire. He and his students turned a ladder into a bridge. The workers used it to get from one rooftop to the other.

Many trapped in the blaze chose to jump from the windows rather than die in the fire. But it was a 95-foot fall to the sidewalk.

As those inside Triangle searched for a way out, firefighters down on the street flooded the building with water. Some lifted their ladders to give workers a way down, but they reached only to the sixth floor.

Meanwhile, Katie was still struggling to get out.

Turning away from the locked door, she saw the elevator.

This, she knew, was her chance.

During a fire, heat can damage elevator equipment. Passengers can become trapped. Elevator operator Joseph Zito knew the risks. (Back then, elevators were not automatic; they had to be operated by a person.) But Zito was determined to save as many workers as he could.

And so he took the elevator up and down, again and again. With each trip, he did not know if the flames would spread into the elevator or if the elevator would get stuck, trapping everyone inside—including him.

This time, when Zito got to the ninth floor, Katie joined the workers pushing their way inside. But there were too many people.

She couldn’t get in. As the elevator started down without her, Katie felt sure it would not come back. The fire was now too strong.

If she stayed there, she wouldn’t live.

So she dove.

Katie grabbed the wire cable that ran up through the elevator car. She landed on the heads of the workers inside. Her face smashed into the tangle of bodies. Her feet stuck out the door, smacking painfully on each floor as the elevator went down.

THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NEW YORK/THE GRANGER COLLECTION

The Destruction

Though the building itself was fireproof, everything inside the Triangle factory was destroyed.

The Trial

The fire destroyed three floors in 18 minutes. It killed 146 people. Most of them were teenage girls and young women, and nearly all of them were immigrants.

Katie was lucky. Diving into that elevator saved her life. Sadly, Rose did not survive.

As news of the fire spread across New York, people were outraged. This tragedy could have been prevented. How many people would still be alive if the door hadn’t been locked? If the factory had basic fire safety features? If the owners had bothered to have a fire drill?

A large crowd gathered to demand better fire safety laws—and justice for Triangle victims. On April 5, some 120,000 people joined a solemn funeral march through the cold and rainy streets to remember those who had died in the fire.

A few weeks after the fire, Blanck and Harris were put on trial. Katie bravely spoke out against her former bosses. In court, she told everyone about the locked door on the ninth floor. To make her point, she even shook the door of the courtroom, pretending to try to escape.

But in the end, the jury did not find Blanck and Harris guilty. Nobody could prove that the two men had been the ones who locked the Washington Place door on the day of the fire. The jury decided that someone else could have locked it without the owners knowing about it. So the men went free.

The fire destroyed three floors in 18 minutes. It killed 146 people. Most of the victims were teenage girls and young women. Nearly all of them were immigrants.

Katie was lucky. Diving into that elevator saved her life. Sadly, Rose did not survive.

News of the fire spread across New York. Many people were angry when they heard about it. This tragedy could have been prevented. How many people would still be alive if the door had not been locked? If the factory had basic fire safety features? If the Triangle owners had ever bothered to have a fire drill?

A crowd gathered to demand better fire safety laws—and justice for the Triangle victims. On April 5, some 120,000 people joined a solemn funeral march through the streets to remember those who had died in the fire.

A few weeks after the fire, Blanck and Harris were put on trial. Katie spoke out against her former bosses. In court, she told everyone about the locked door. To make her point, she even shook the door of the courtroom, pretending to try to escape.

But in the end, the jury did not find Blanck and Harris guilty. No one could prove that they had been the ones who locked the Washington Place door on the day of the fire. The jury decided that someone else could have locked it without the owners knowing. So the men went free.

THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NEW YORK/THE GRANGER COLLECTION

The Legacy

Today, the building that once housed the Triangle factory is owned by New York University. There’s only a small sign to mark the tragedy. Yet the legacy of Triangle can be found everywhere.

Because of that fire, laws were passed requiring factories and offices to be safe. Many of the fire safety codes we have in the U.S. today can be traced back to the Triangle fire. So can many of the laws protecting workers.

For the survivors of Triangle, life was forever changed. But many went on to live full lives. Katie married not long after the fire and had a son. She and her husband lived in Brooklyn, New York, for many years. And she lived to see how the awful events of March 25, 1911, helped bring Americans together. Many were inspired to join the fight for workers’ rights—a fight that would push in the coming decades for all workers to be treated with dignity and fairness.

Today, the building that once held the Triangle factory is owned by New York University. There’s only a small sign to mark the tragedy. Yet the legacy of Triangle can be found everywhere.

Because of the fire, laws were passed to make factories and offices safe. Many of the fire safety codes we have in the U.S. today can be traced back to the Triangle fire. So can many of the laws that protect workers.

For the survivors of Triangle, life was forever changed. But many went on to live full lives. Katie married and had a son. She lived in Brooklyn, New York. And she lived to see how the awful events of March 25, 1911, helped bring Americans together. Many were inspired to join the fight for workers’ rights. In the coming decades, this fight would push for all workers to be treated with dignity and fairness.