New York Fire Department reports say the flames, which were probably sparked by a cigarette tossed into a pile of cotton scraps on the eighth floor, rapidly spread to the floors above. The maelstrom of fire was knocked down in 18 minutes -- brief, but long enough to snuff out the lives of 146 workers who were just minutes from heading home from their 52-hour workweek that sunny Saturday afternoon on March 25, 1911.
The victims of that inferno 100 years ago today were almost all new immigrants, mostly women and girls -- Italians, Russians, Hungarians and Germans. Few spoke English.
Some stood on the narrow window ledges, alone or clutching friends, waiting for rescue that never came, then jumped or lost their balance and fell to their deaths. The height of the fall was so great that the jumpers tore through the safety nets that a circle of firefighters were frantically moving up and down the street to catch them.
The 146 lives lost in the fire ignited a passion for worker safety laws and indirectly led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Yet a century later, the laws that could have saved lives had they been in place on March 25, 1911, are being threatened by budget cuts proposed by a Republican-controlled Congress.
The Lessons From the Tragedy
Many of the deaths from the 1911 fire were preventable.
A flimsy iron fire escape quickly gave way under the weight of the first trying to flee. The single elevator was immobilized by dozens of bodies falling into the shaft as some tried to shimmy down the grease-covered cables.
But the main route to living another day, the exit doors, were blocked by boxes of trash and fabric scrap, or locked by the bosses to prevent workers from stealing the fancy blouses with puffed sleeves and tight bodices that the Triangle Shirtwaist sweatshop produced by the thousands.
After the tragedy, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union led a parade of more than 100,000 mourners through the streets of lower Manhattan, and politicians realized that they'd better pay attention to what just happened in their town.
The cry "This shall never happen again" echoed through city halls and state capitols. Officials in many major U.S. cities looked around and found identically dangerous conditions in their factories. Workers in their communities faced the same risk.
Whether it was shame, guilt or genuine concern for the safety of the American worker, politicians promised to do better. First in New York City and then in Albany, lawmakers, ignoring strident objections by the business community, forced through the country's first and strongest worker safety protection laws.
Massachusetts, New Jersey and Illinois soon passed similar safeguards. Fifteen other states tried to do the same, but intense lobbying by industry either blocked the attempts or watered down the legislation to the point of uselessness.
But the fire also produced a champion for a national system of worker safety regulations.
Dedicated to Protecting Workers
The afternoon of the fire, a young social worker named Frances Perkins was having tea with a friend in Greenwich Village when she heard clanging firetruck bells and screams. As she raced toward the noise, she saw black smoke bellowing from the building and watched as the seamstresses leaped or fell to the ground.
Twenty-two years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Perkins as U.S. secretary of labor, recalled Hilda Solis, who now holds that job.
Perkins never forgot the fire and the trapped workers, and she did much during her 12 years on the job, including creating what would become the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Solis said in recent speeches and op-ed pieces.
Worker safety advocates cite the painful irony that, precisely 100 years to the month after the fire, the House of Representatives has passed a budget bill that would slash nearly $100 million -- about 20 percent -- from OSHA's current budget. About 40 percent of those cuts will be to the agency's enforcement and safety inspectors -- those on the front line of protecting workers.
"Lives will be lost because of these proposed cuts. They're devastating," Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, told AOL News on Thursday.
"Since its founding, OSHA has been underfunded and understaffed. They currently have enough inspectors to inspect every workplace just once every 143 years. The proposed cuts will cut OSHA's effectiveness even more," he added.
OSHA administrator David Michaels says the House's cutback "would really have a devastating effect on all of our activities."
David Von Drehle wrote what many consider the definitive book on the tragedy in 1911, "Triangle: The Fire that Changed America." He said in the book that history can run backward, and that even much-needed reforms like worker safety gains can be lost again.
"Many of the initial post-Triangle reforms were strenuously opposed by conservative businessmen ... who were soon back in the saddle and able to halt, hamstring or reverse liberal initiatives," he wrote.
The recent GOP sweep has many believing the same thing is happening again.
No Surprise That OSHA Was a Target
When the Republicans swept back into power in the House in January, Rep. Darrell Issa, the newly appointed chairman of the House Government Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, told major industries, lobbyists, trade associations and companies large and small that, as head of the congressional watchdog committee, he'd appreciate their views on what government regulations they didn't like and what he should change.
It surprised no one that the Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA were the favorite targets of the hundreds letters that were hand-carried or express-mailed to him.
The California Republican insists that these changes that big business wants will save jobs, but he hasn't explained how to the satisfaction of even some in his own party. Republicans budget cutters say that environmental regulation is harmful to the economy and that OSHA's worker safety actions are unnecessary and detrimental to businesses large and small.
Those involved with worker safety cringe.
"With conservatives in Congress decrying the supposedly "job-killing" effects of OSHA protections, we could be on our way to becoming a First World economy with Third World working conditions," said Tom O'Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a federation of local and state committees or coalitions on occupational safety and health.
The U.S. has made progress in worker protection, but, he quickly added, it is 29th out of 30 industrialized nations when it comes to safety and health protection for workers, managing to beat out only Turkey.
"Crippling budget cuts like these can only come from lawmakers who are willing to throw hardworking Americans under the bus once they've extracted a vote," Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist for health and environment with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told AOL News.
Her organization is one of the nation's largest environmental action groups, but Sass's concern for worker safety came from her grandmother, Clara Weinstein, a seamstress who was working the day of the fire in another Garment District sweatshop neighboring the Triangle factory building.
Clara was only a young teenager when she left her parents behind in Russia to work in New York City's garment factories and send money home -- "a story repeated every day by immigrant workers, many of them teenagers like my grandmother was," Sass said.
Her grandmother never went to college, but she spoke and read in three languages -- English, Russian and Yiddish -- and she knew wrong from right, Sass recalled. "She always told me she was a dressmaker, but in fact she was an unskilled piece worker on an assembly line in a loud, dusty and very dangerous factory."
Her grandmother was spared death from fire, but not from the factory conditions that destroyed her lungs, her sight, her hearing, and her back, the scientist said.
The Deaths Continued
Passing laws alone isn't enough to save lives.
On Sept. 3, 1991, 25 workers died from burns or suffocation and another 54 were injured when a 25-foot-long deep-fat fryer burst into flames at the Imperial Foods Products chicken-processing plant in Hamlet, N.C. As with the Triangle fire, the fire doors were locked to keep workers from stealing chickens. The plant had never been inspected -- not by OSHA or any other federal or state safety agency -- during its 11 years in operation, North Carolina accident investigators reported.
The deaths continue today. Just look at what happened during one month last year.
On April 2, an explosion at the Tesoro petroleum refinery in Anacortes, Wash., killed seven workers. Three days later, in West Virginia, 29 miners died when Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine exploded. Fifteen days later, on April 20, 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit exploded and killed 11 workers and injured 16 others.
These multiple-fatality tragedies garner headlines and cause politicians in Congress to bang their fists on tables, demanding action," said O'Connor.
"Our country suffers from a silent epidemic of workplace deaths that elicit little or no outrage, he said, citing the construction worker with no harness who falls to his death from an unguarded roof. Or the sanitation worker with no protection or training who enters a confined space permeated with deadly chemical fumes. And the 18–year-old kid in his first week on the job who is buried alive in a collapsed trench.
The owners of the Triangle factory were indicted by a grand jury on seven counts, charged with manslaughter in the second degree under the U.S. Labor Code, which mandated that doors should not be locked during working hours. They avoided prison with the help of New York's finest, most prestigious and highly paid lawyers, as well as a judge in their pocket, according to published reports.
To prevent his son from being charged, Emmett J. Roe, owner of Imperial Foods Products, pleaded guilty to 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter. He admitted that he had personally ordered the doors to be locked from the outside. He received a prison sentence of 19 years and 11 months.
OSHA Has Problems Beyond Budget Cuts
Thousands are expected to gather in lower Manhattan and in other cities today to remember the tragic loss of lives caused by uncaring bosses and disinterested politicians. Many of the speeches are expected to talk about Congress's gutting of federal worker safety inspectors and the need to improve the capabilities of national programs.
"OSHA badly needs an upgrade. The penalties are too low to be a deterrent to all but the smallest employers. The criminal provisions are insulting to workers: The maximum penalty for a willful violation that kills a worker is six months, while the penalties for environmental crimes like harassing [not killing] protected animal species are five years or more," Michael Wright, director of Health, Safety and Environment for the United Steelworkers, told AOL News
Wright praises the dedication of OSHA's staff, calling them "dedicated public servants, in a tough job, trying to do more with less," and added that OSHA is significantly under-resourced as it is, so the House-proposed budget cuts would be catastrophic.
Professor David Goldsmith, a former consultant to OSHA, is an occupational and environmental epidemiologist who teaches at George Washington University's School of Public Health. He told AOL News that workers must be given much more education and training on the basics of health and safety before they enter the labor force.
"There must be a compact between workers and managers to find mutual ways to reduce on-the-job risks," he said. But Goldsmith admits that there are no incentives to reduce risk, only incentives to delay prevention by corporations and industry associations, stopping the adoption of better rules.
Dr. Michael Harbut, an occupational medicine specialist with years of working the front lines of worker safety, says OSHA has enough challenges without the budget cuts.
"OSHA can only operate within the confines of the law, and the law did not adequately contemplate the types of illnesses and deaths which can be caused by chemicals and other potentially harmful agents such as nanoparticles, which have been and will be introduced since the law was passed," Harbut, a cancer specialist, said.
Their insurance company paid $400 for each worker who died that day -- about $60,000. According to documents collected by Cornell University, Harris and Blanck doled out just $75 to each family and pocketed the rest.
The final note to this tragic epic is that the remains of six of the workers were so badly charred their names were never known, but this year, a century later, Michael Hirsch, a historian and and amateur genealogist, tracked down the identities of the missing six.
For the first time, their names will be read with the other 140 who died that horrible day.