Sadie Nussbaum, an eighteen-year-old Jewish girl who had lived in the United States of America her entire life along with 148 of her fellow workers, was killed in the fire in the Triangle Shirt Factory(Nussbaum death certificate). Ever since, historians and advocates have asked the question, ‘Who should be held responsible for their deaths? ” After looking at many sources it seems that the owners of the building, Blanck and Harris, were ultimately responsible for the fire. This is because they failed to keep the building properly inspected, had terrible working conditions and over crowding, and only had one exit door.
March 25, 1911 started out as a normal work day for Sadie and the other 500 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. But near the end of the day, a fire broke out on the top three floors of the Asch Building where she was working. Within thirty minutes, the building was engulfed in flames and approximately 146 workers (Introduction Fire! ), mostly young women including Sadie, either burned or fell to their deaths. Historians have debated who should be held responsible for the destruction of the building and the many lives lost.
Some historians have argued that the subcontractors that worked at the building were responsible for the death of Sadie and her friends. They were hired by the owners to make their lives easier. They were in charge of paying the workers and keeping the women under control. Blanck and Harris were unaware of the way the subcontractors were treating the women, which led to exploitation within the work place. Some might say that the subcontractors should have made sure the working conditions were better and the workers were as safe as they could be.
The subcontractors’ only job was to take orders from their bosses, Blanck and Harris, so there was no way they could have fixed the problems of the building without the orders of the boss. This argument is weak because the responsibilities of the subcontractors were not to run the building, not making them responsible for the terrible conditions that led to the mass amount of deaths. In reality, the owners, Blanck and Harris, were the people to blame for the 146 deaths and destruction of the building.
The owners of the building, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were responsible for keeping the building properly inspected and up to code. According to Rudolph P. Miller, the building inspector, 2,500 square feet required one staircase, 5,000 required two, and 10,000 required three (TRAP pg. 23). The ninth and tenth floors of the building were each 10,000 square feet, therefore required three staircases, but only had two. He wrote a letter to inform the owners, showing that it was their fault and not the subcontractors’, of the necessity of that third staircase, but was ignored.
The fire escape in the back of the building was used as the third stairwell, although it was not sufficient because at the time of the fire, the flimsy fire escape ended two floors above the ground and was rusty and in terrible shape. Once the fire started, sections of the ladder twisted and collapsed under the weight of workers trying to escape the fire (Photos and Illustrations, unknown photographer). A a great many did choose to use them during the fire, but could not descend due to the poor condition of the ladders.
The owners never had the building hold any fire drills, and without previous instruction on how to handle themselves in such an emergency, the fire panicked the workers. (WARNING) Becuase the owners thought it too costly, the building lacked the proper sprinkler system (Photo). If the owners had listened to Rudolph P. Miller and installed the sprinkler system the building needed, the event would not have been as deadly. The women and men working in the factory were subjected to terrible working conditions and only recieved a small salary.
According to an interview with Abe Gordon, the floors were saturated with oil and looked like it had been months since they had been cleaned (Leon Stein Interviews, Abe Gordon). Oil was a very flammable substance that probably contributed to the spreading of the fire. Each of the ten thousand square foot floors had at least eight rows of long wooden tables tightly packed together. “The men were so close to me at each side 1 felt the heat of their bodies and could not prevent myself from shrinking away. “(My First Job, Rose Cohen). This not only created an extremely crammed work space, but also a dangerous one.
Along with the crammed tables, there were mountains of boxes cluttering the windows and exits (Abe Gordon). The wickerbaskets filled with scraps of cloth and paper were strewn throughout the floor, often overflowing onto the floor. This made the already crammed space even more cluttered. “The shops are unsanitary-that’s the word that is generally used, but there ought to be a worse one used. ” (Life in the Shop, Clara Lemlich) In an interview with one of the fireman, it was discovered that, “They are dirty; they are unclean; their stock is strewed all over the floor.
Where they use machinery there are no passageways whatsoever. “(Fireman interview) The terrible working conditions these people had to be exposed to made it nearly impossible to escape to safety when the fire started. It was the owners who were responsible for creating a safe working environment, but they failed to do that. Probably one of the most debated pieces of evidence to whose fault it was was the fact that every single door in the building was locked. The fireman who was interviewed said, “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. “(fireman) The owners of the building believed that the workers would steal scraps so the men and women working in the factory entered and ex through one door. “At closing time workers were forced to leave by a single Greene Street exit where their coats and bags were checked for stolen goods. ” The owners of the factory had zero trust in their employees and believed that they snuck out for a smoke or did not work their full shifts.
Their solution was to go against the fire departments suggestion and lock all doors but one. In a well illustrated cartoon by Robert Carter, women surrounded in smoke and flames pounding their fists on the locked factory door (The Locked Door, Robert Carter). The picture portrays the fear and desperateness of these women trapped in the building, about to be burned to death. Another cartoon shows one of the owner pressed up against the door, almost like he was holding it closed, with the struggling women right on the other side (unknown artist).
Both cartoons portray the terrible tragedy and how the owners were technically “holding the doors closed,” making it impossible for Sadie and the others to escape. Blanck and Harris were the ones to make the decision not to trust their workers and to lock the doors. Because the doors were not an escape option, the workers were forced to decide which method of escaping they would take, but most of the women were left to burn or jumped to their deaths.
The tragedy that was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire shone a spotlight on the terrible factory conditions during that time. It led to the transformation of the labor code and adoption of fire safety measures. Because of Blanck and Harris’ fatal mistakes when running their company and the tremendous number of deaths that occurred, The New York Factory Investigative Commission wrote thirty-six new labor related bills to protect the safety of the workers (Legacy of the Triangle Fire).
The changes in codes and labor laws generated in the aftermath of the Triangle Fire had obvious beneficial effects on the safety and the working conditions of workers in New York State and across the country. Even though this event in history was catastrophic, the faults of Black and Harris eventually led to the improvement of working conditions in the United States of America. So who’s fault was it that a fire broke out in the afternoon of March twenty-fifth, killing 147 young men and women? This question had been greatly debated by many historians.
Some believed that the subcontractor or the fire chief was to blame, but in reality it was the owners of the company, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who were responsible for the many deaths. They failed to keep the building up to code, leading to rusted fire escapes and the lack of enough staircases. The working conditions in the factory were horrendous and all doors but one were locked at all times. The workers were trapped, which led to an increased mortality, due to these poor working conditions.