The year was 1911, the time of Downton Abbey and only a year later the Titanic would make her first and last voyage. One of the most fashionable pieces of clothing was the shirtwaist, a tailored garment with design detail copied from men's shirts. In the Asch Building's top floors over 500 women toiled in unsafe conditions, setting the stage for one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history.
Just after 4:40 pm on March 25th, 1911 dozens of people looked up to the 8th, 9th and 10th floor windows of the Asch Building, 23 – 29 Washington Place, Greenwich Village, New York. A fire was raging, and besides the smoke that initially drew attention, it was the sound and sight of a man hitting the pavement after dropping 30 meters that drew a crowd.
Soon after, as the crowd watched, a man and women kissed before taking the drop to their deaths.
This event, that was to become known as the 'Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire', would draw upwards of 20,000 spectators as 146 people perished in the flames or on the sidewalk below. The eldest fatality was a woman aged 43 and the youngest just 11 years of age.
The fire began in a fabric scrap bin, under a cloth cutters table in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The factory produced blouses and employed mostly immigrant women. The fire, located on the 8th floor, was noticed by a passer by five minutes later, and soon people rushed to the scene in order to lend a hand.
The tenth floor was warned of the danger through a telephone system, but there was no way to warn those on the ninth floor, who continued working until they themselves noticed the smoke coming through the windows.
As can be expected, the workers all displayed great haste in wanting to leave the path of the flames, which would soon engulf the upper three floors occupied by the factory. Many people crammed into the elevators to escape, while others made way to the fire escapes and emergency doors.
Unfortunately, the emergency escape doors were all locked. The factory had a policy of checking all the women's purses as they left, to make sure no one was thieving the clothing. Due to this policy, the majority of the doors were kept locked so the women would have to wait till someone was present to check their bags at the end of the shift.
Many of the working women pounded on the doors in order to draw attention, to get them opened. Unfortunately the foreman who held the keys had made a run for it, as soon as he noticed the smoke, leaving everyone trapped on the upper floors.
With an improperly installed water hose, no sprinklers, a fire escape unable to withstand the weight of many people and dangerously dark stairwells, the Asch Building was a disaster waiting to happen.
The elevators moved excruciatingly slow so many of the workers made their way to external fire escape stairwells, but within a matter of minutes one was blocked at both ends due to flames. Everyone rushed to the other stairwell, and in their panic at fleeing the fire, they over crowded it. The flimsy metal construction crumpled under their combined weight, sending 25 people to their deaths on the pavement below.
Two elevator operators continued working the elevators as long as they could. The first of these elevators stopped running when the heat buckled the guide rails of his elevator. The second elevator continued running until the operator began hearing loud thumps and bangs coming from above.
People looking for a way out of the fire started to jump down the elevator shafts, in the hope of landing on the elevator roof. The roof did in fact catch the jumpers, but the distance proved to be too great. These jumpers fell to their deaths, buckling the elevator and causing it to also stop running.
With the fire escapes all blocked by fire or collapsed, the elevators not working and the other exits locked, people made their way to the roof or windows in order to put distance between themselves and the fire. Soon, as the fire spread to the outer reaches of the buildings, people had two choices – allow themselves to be overcome by smoke and fire, or jump the thirty meters and hope to be caught by the firemen's nets below – their ladders unable to reach beyond the sixth floor.
The first few jumpers made it safely. A man was witnessed helping women make the decision by escorting them out of a window and dropping them safely to the net below.
A young girl of about thirteen was seen hanging by her fingertips from a ninth-floor windowsill for a few minutes. Then the fire reached her fingers and she fell into a waiting net, only to be crushed by two other women who fell immediately after her, adding all three to the death list.
Several oversights on part of the FDNY also made the situation even more disastrous. Their fire truck ladders were not long enough to reach the upper floors, for instance, and their feeble safety nets couldn’t “catch the women, who were jumping three at a time.” As a result, the street quickly became littered with crumbled bodies. As for the women still trapped inside, many got stuck in elevator shafts. Those who weren’t burned alive died from asphyxiation.
None of those who jumped from the 8th, 9th or 10th floor survived the fall.
Stories of unbelievable anguish were published in newspapers across the county. A young girl was identified by a family heirloom signet ring found clinging to the charred flesh of a badly burned body. A young woman screamed as she collapsed after identifying her fiancé by his ring, having become engaged only the night before. She asked if a watch had been found with his body. When she was given the watch, she opened it and “gazed upon her own portrait.” A man, having waited in line for over five hours, identified his daughters by their clothing. After collapsing with grief, he attempted to kill himself on the spot. He was restrained by police until he calmed down enough to continue looking for his wife, also lost in the fire.
A man with a fresh burn on his cheek, identified his brother. He told the police that he and his brother had fought the fire, standing side by side, with buckets of water. A man who had barely escaped with his own life identified his fiancée by her engagement ring. In her hand, she still clutched her handbag, her weekly wages of $3 remained inside, intact. A sobbing brother stumbled away from the mangled bodies of his two sisters left propped up in their coffins to search for their mother. The fire took his entire family.
As a growing number of people became hysterical or suicidal, a makeshift hospital was set up at the pier to deal with this unexpected problem. Doctors and nurses from Bellevue Hospital worked for days trying to help keep these grieving family members from being added to the list of lives stolen by the fire.
Thirty-one victims remained unidentified after the last of the survivors claimed their family and friends. The Hebrew Free Burial Association paid for the burial of 23 of these victims in a special section of Mount Richmond Cemetery. The remaining eight bodies were interred in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn.
In all 146 people died as a result of the fire. 129 were women and 17 were men. Around 60 of these were located on the sidewalk where they jumped or fell. Six of the victims were not identified initially and were only finally identified in 2011, a full hundred years after the tragedy.
The company’s owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck who were Russian immigrants, had fled at the first sign of the fire. They were put up on charges of manslaughter, but were acquitted by the jury. When asked why they locked the doors preventing quick egress in emergency they replied it was to prevent theft. The amount of theft hoped to be prevented amounted to $20. Although that was a fair bit more money back in 1911, it still only amounted to two weeks of wages to one of the underpaid workers. All in all, a small amount for the company that instead resulted in 146 lives lost.
New work safety reforms were created as a result of the fire, including better access to exits and no more locking of doors during working hours. Even so, one of the factory owners was later arrested for locking the doors at another of his factories during working hours.
The building itself survived the fire and the upper most floors were refurbished to accommodate a library and classrooms for New York University. It is now known as the brown building, and is not without its resident ghosts.
Many of those who have visited or worked in the building since its refurbishment have felt in irrational sense of wanting to flee. The panic wells up within them, seemingly without reason, and many who unable to take it leave.
Disembodied screams have been reported in the afternoons towards the end of the work day. A woman has been seen fleeing down one of the hallways of the 8th floor, and also appears out of nowhere in one of the bathrooms.
On the ninth floor, which is reported as the most haunted, just as you leave the elevator there is a tall rectangular mirror. At times, those who look in the mirror do not recognise the person who is looking back. Generally the similar features are there, the clothes are the same and the stance is the same but the head and face flicker, as if being viewed through a flame.
The NYU's Brown Building, as it is now known, has thus accumulated a lot of ghostly happenings over the years. Door handles are known to jiggle by themselves, for instance, perhaps because phantom workers are still trying to escape the terrible inferno. Their footsteps are often heard running up and down the stairwells. Lectures and study sessions are also frequently interrupted by the crackle of ghostly flames.
It is not uncommon for the smell of smoke to waft through the halls of the upper floors and more than once fire warnings have passed through the building. On occasion, people have reported a different kind of odor accompanying the smell of smoke. This odor can only be described as that of burning flesh -- then the odors simply disappear as quickly as they began.
Often, doors that are supposed to be locked are found unlocked, sometimes within minutes of being locked! Could it be that the spirit of someone lost in the fire is trying to keep the current occupants from meeting the same tragic fate by being trapped behind a locked door in an emergency?
A few people over the years have described a most peculiar experience. While sitting at a desk or workstation they have seen, out of the corner of their eye, something large flutter downward past their window. Upon going to the window to look down and see what it was, there is nothing there.
The most striking ghostly experience was related by a secretary who worked in the building for many years. She explained that she had been working later than usual one evening and by the time she left to go home, most of the other employees and students had already left. As she walked out of the building, she noticed a young woman walk past her with a slight stagger and a dazed look on her face. She was very dirty and her hair and clothes appeared to be singed or burned. The secretary called to her to see if she needed help but the young woman didn’t respond; she just kept walking and turned the corner. Thinking that the woman might be injured or in trouble, she ran after her but upon turning the corner, she was met by an empty sidewalk. The young woman had simply vanished.
Source - ParanormalGuide
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer