June 01, 2019 Legal Lore

The Triangle Fire Tragedy, Trial, and Triumph

Robert and Marilyn Aitken (Originally published Spring 2010)

View downloadable PDF of article.

I was walking through Washington Square when a puff of smoke issuing from the factory building caught my eye. I reached the building before the alarm was turned in. I saw every feature of the tragedy visible from outside the building. I learned a new sound—a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.

Thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead. Sixty-two thuds. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet.

The first ten thud—deads shocked me. I looked up—saw that there were scores of girls at the windows. The flames from the floor below were beating in their faces. Somehow I knew that they, too, must come down, and something within me—something that I didn’t know was there—steeled me.

This is what William G. Shepherd, a United Press reporter, saw as he walked across Washington Square in New York City in the late afternoon of March 25, 1911. His story of the deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was telegraphed to newspapers across the nation.

Shepherd described how bystanders shouted to the girls not to jump. He watched a young man helping girls to the window sill and holding them out into space before dropping them. The final girl embraced and kissed him. He dropped her and then leaped off the sill to his death.

Fire trucks arrived, but the ladders reached only to the sixth floor. The fire had started on the eighth floor, where the workers soon realized the danger. Those on the tenth floor had an escape route. The ninth floor rapidly became an inferno where the choice was to burn in the fire or leap from a window sill.

“On the sidewalk,” Shepherd reported, “lay heaps of broken bodies.” . . .

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