The Brown Building which stands at 23-29 Washington Place in Greenwich Village, New York City NY is now a part of the New York University. On March 25 2011, it was known as the Asch Building and housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Company when a fire there changed lives and history.
The factory occupied the top three floors of the ten story building and typically had about 500 employees, mostly women, who worked six days a week for a total of 52 hours. The mostly young, immigrant women worked to produce women's blouses and were ending their workday on March 25th when the fire broke out. The fire started at about 4:40 pm that Saturday afternoon in a scrap bin under a cutters table that held about two months worth of scraps in it. The first fire alarm was sent in at 4:45 pm by a passerby who spotted smoke coming from the eighth floor. A bookkeeper on the eighth floor telephoned the tenth floor about the fire but there was no way to contact the ninth floor and warn them.
Flames quickly made one stairway impossible to use and the other stairway had a locked gate that was there to prevent theft among the employees. The foreman who had the key to that gate had already fled the building. The elevators only managed to make a few runs to the ninth floor before they were forced to give up. There was an exterior fire escape that had been installed to make up for a lack of a third stairway in the building but it soon buckled and collapsed, dropping about 20 employees over 100 feet to their deaths.
The fire department did their best to send water up to the three floors that were on fire but that was all they could do. The ladders they had would only reach up six stories, far short of the floors that needed help. It was not long before 62 people had jumped to their death or fallen out of the flaming floors as well as the dozens who fell or jumped into the elevator shafts. The rest who died had waited for the smoke or fire to kill them. In total, 146 people died in the fire, 123 women and 23 men died of blunt force injuries, burns or smoke inhalation or a combination of the three even though the fire had been put out in about a half hour.
The company's owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck escaped the fire by running to the roof and were later charged with first and second degree manslaughter. They were acquitted by a jury but later lost the civil lawsuit brought by the families of those who died. The families had won a compensation of about $75 dollars per person but that did not hurt the owners too badly as the insurance company had paid them about $60,000 more than their reported losses. That gave them about $400 per person who had died.
The tragedy of the fire brought about sweeping new changes in the workplace including over 30 laws relating to labor. It was instrumental in the formation of the Ladies Garment Union's push for better worker safety and worker compensation laws. Some of the new laws included availability of fire extinguishers, mandatory fire drills, fireproofing, better egress in case of emergency, installation of automatic alarms and sprinklers and limiting the hours that women and children could work. The disaster also brought about the forming of the American Society of Safety Engineers in October of 1911.
Tragedy struck New York City again on March 25 1990 when a jealous boyfriend set fire to the Happy Land Social Club. The illegal club on 1959 Southern Blvd off East Tremont St in NYC had been ordered to close on Nov 1988 because of numerous building code violations. The two story club had only one stairway that led upstairs and the fire exits had been kept locked to prevent people from sneaking in and not paying the cover charge. It also did not have a liquor license but it was popular among the young Central American people.
Julio Gonzalez, 25, had gone to the club to try and convince his ex girlfriend to come back to him but she refused that night. He was a Cuban immigrant that had come over in the Mariel boatlift and had recently lost his job packing boxes at a Queens lamp factory. His long time girl friend Lydia Feliciano had broke up with him once again and refused to quit her job at Happy Land as a coat check girl. Gonzalez stalked away and headed to a nearby Amoco gas station where he bought a dollars worth of gas. He then took the gas back to the club, poured in the entranceway and lit it on fire.
The fire raced up the only stairway into the club while Gonzalez stood across the street watching. He had set the fire at 3:30 am and the first fire alarm was turned in at 3:41 am. The fire department was there in three minutes and quickly put out the fire. They found 19 bodies in the stairwell and ground floor of the club and thought that they had found all of the dead. They realized they were very wrong when they reached the second floor. They found 68 more bodies upstairs, many of them crowded along the walls as if trying to escape. many of the bodies though looked as if they had never even had a chance to move from the tables they were at. The fire had sucked all of the oxygen from the room and they had suffocated in minutes. Only three people had managed to escape including Lydia and the club owner's wife.
Gonzalez was arrested a few hours later and told officials why and how he had started the fire. he had hoped that if he burned down the club, Lydia would be forced to come back to him since she would not have a job. He was convicted of two counts of murder and felony murder for each death and received a sentence of 25 years to life for each one. The sentences are to be served concurrently by law and he was eligible for parole in 2015 but was turned down. It is highly unlikely that he will ever be released from prison for his crime or that the fire will ever be forgotten. It did lead to a massive crackdown on illegal clubs within the city following years of seeing them as only a neighborhood nuisance.