UP's Coverage of 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire




Here's Bill Shepherd's famous story about the Triangle Shirtwaist Co., fire in 1911. This version was printed in the Cleveland Press the Monday after the Saturday fire, which killed 146 people on March 25, 1911:


By W.G. SHEPHERD

NEW YORK, March 27 -- 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! Thud-dead!  Sixty-two! 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 80 feet.

The first 10 shocked me. I looked up, saw that there were scores of girls in the windows. The flames from the floor below were beating into their faces. Somehow I knew that they, too, just come down, and something within me - something that I didn't know was there - steeled me.

I even watched one girl falling. She, waving her arms, tried to keep her body upright. Until the very instant she touched the sidewalk, she was trying to balance herself. Then came the thud - then a silent, unmoving pile of clothing and twisted, broken limbs.

As I reached the scene of the fire a mushroom of smoke hung over the 10-story building. I glanced up and on the edge of the roof saw a young man walking along with his overcoat over his arm. He appeared to be waiting for the fire engines. But none was there. There was none even in sight or within hearing.

I noticed that the man was well dressed and had a jaunty air. His hands were in his trousers pockets. Five minutes later I saw him jump out into space. His overcoat parachuted in the air beside him. A moment later he was lifeless on the sidewalk.

I looked up to the seventh floor. There was a living picture in each window - four screaming girls, waving their arms.  "Call the firemen," they screamed - scores of them. "Get a ladder," cried others. They were all as alive and whole and sound as were we who stood on the sidewalk: I couldn't help thinking of that. We cried to them not to jump. We heard the siren of a fire engine in some distant block. Then other sirens sounded from several directions.

"Here they come!" we yelled. "Don't jump! Stay there!"

One girl climbed onto a window sash. Those behind her tried to hold her back. Then she dropped into space. I didn't notice whether those above watched her drop. I turned away. Then came that first thud-dead impression.

I looked up. Another girl was climbing onto the window sill. Others were crowding behind her. She dropped. I watched her fall and heard the sound. Two windows away two girls were climbing onto the sill. They were fighting and crowding each other for air. Behind them I saw many screaming heads. They fell, almost together. But I heard two distinct thuds.

Suddenly the flames broke out through the windows on the floor below them, and curled up into their faces. The firemen began to raise a ladder. Others took out life nets. While they were rushing to the sidewalk with them two more girls shot down. The firemen held the net under the bodies. The two bodies broke it. The grotesque simile of a dog jumping through a paper hoop struck me. Before they could move the net another girl's body flashed into it.

The thuds were just as loud, it seemed, as if there had been no net there. It seemed to me that the thuds were so loud that they might have been heard all over the city, like dull explosion roars.

I had counted 10. Then my dulled sense began to work automatically. I noticed things that it had not occurred to me before to notice, little details that the first shock had blinded me to. I looked up to see whether those above watched those who fell. I noticed that they did-watched them every inch of the way down and probably heard the roaring thuds that we heard, unless the roaring flames were too loud.

As I looked up I saw a love affair in the midst of all the horror. A young man at a window helped a girl to the window sill; then he held her out, deliberately, away from the building, and let her drop. He seemed cool and calculating. He held out a second girl in the same way and then let her drop. Then he held out a third girl. They didn't resist. I noticed that they were as unresisting as if he was helping them onto a street car instead of into eternity.

Undoubtedly he saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames and his aid was only a terrible chivalry.  

Then came love amid the flames. He brought another girl to the window. Those of us who were looking saw him put her arms about him and kiss him. Then he held her out into space and dropped her. But, quick as a flash he was on the window sill himself. His coat flattened upward: the air filled his trouser legs; I could see that he wore tan shoes, and hose. His hat remained on his head.

Thud-dead! Thud-dead! They went into eternity together. I saw his face before they covered it. You could see in it that he was a real man. He had done his best.

We found out later that, in the room in which he stood, many girls were being burned to death by the flames, and were screaming in an inferno of heat and smoke. He chose the easiest way and was brave enough even to help the girl he loved to die, after she had given him a goodby kiss. He leaped with energy as if he believed that he could cheat gravitation and arrive first in that mysterious land of eternity only a second of time distant, to receive her. But her thud-dead! came first.

The firemen raised their ladder. It reached only to the sixth floor. I saw the last girl jump at it and miss it. And then the faces disappeared from the windows.

By now the crowd was large, though all this had occurred in less than seven minutes-the start of the fire and the thuds and deaths. I heard screams around the corner and hurried there. What I had seen before was not so terrible as what followed.

Girls were burning to death before our eyes. There were jams in the windows. No one was lucky enough to be able to jump, it seemed. But, one by one, the jams broke. Down came bodies in a shower, burning, smoking, lighted bodies, with the disheveled hair of the girls trailing upward. They had fought each other to die by jumping instead of by fire.

There were 33 in that shower. The flesh of some of them was cooked. The clothes of most of them were burned away.  The whole, sound, unharmed girls who jumped on the other side of the street had done their best to fall feet down, but these fire-tortured, suffering ones fell inertly, as if they didn't care how they fell, just so that death came to them on the sidewalk instead of in the fiery furnace behind them.

The floods of water from the firemen's hose that ran in the gutter were actually stained red with blood.  

On the sidewalk lay heaps of broken bodies. I saw a policeman later going about with tags, which he fastened with a wire to the wrists of the dead girls, numbering each of them with a lead pencil, and I saw him fasten tag No. 54 onto the wrist of a girl who wore an engagement ring.

A fireman who came downstairs from the building told me there were at least 50 bodies in the big room on the seventh floor. Another fireman told me that more girls had jumped down an air shaft in the rear of the building. I went back there, into the narrow court, and saw a heap of dead girls.

And there I saw the first fire escape I had seen. It was narrow. The fireman told me that many girls had gone down it and that others had fallen from it in the rush. But on the two fronts of the building there were no fire escapes.

These girls were all shirtwaist makers. As I looked at the heap of dead bodies I remembered their great strike of last year, in which these girls demanded more sanitary workrooms, and MORE SAFETY PRECAUTIONS in the shops. These dead bodies told the result.

            
  • Copyright United Press International. Used with permission.
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