Lessons From a Second “Triangle”
“This area stinks. It is a fourth-rate, shabby, deplorable neighborhood. There is no good housekeeping here. What they need is cleanliness to make working atmospheres safe!”
So thundered New York’s Fire Commissioner, Edward F. Cavanagh, Jr., as he gazed upon the blackened ruins of the old five-story loft building in lower Manhattan which spawned the fire on March 19 that brought death to 24 persons, 18 of them women—a tragedy which followed hard on the heels of another fatal incident only a few blocks away in which two firemen and four fire patrolmen were killed (FIRE ENGINEERING, March 1958).
In the main there was nothing particularly new or unusual in this latest holocaust. It followed closely the pattern of the Triangle Shirtwaist nightmare of 1911 in which 145 garment workers perished: Careless housekeeping; delayed notification of the fire department; large unpartitioned area involved; rapidly spreading blaze; panic induced by smoke and flames, and inability to locate exits; also, both occupancies were distinguished by lack of sprinklers and automatic fire detection and notification systems which have been recommended for such risks for years.
The Triangle fire victims did not die in vain. The catastrophe resulted in the adoption of the (then) most stringent set of factory laws for New York State which the country had ever seen—statutes which with all their loopholes, have served well until the present, as safeguards against similar disasters in the garment and allied manufacturing trades.
Property owners and tenants of many of the old structures—there aren’t many new manufacturing buildings in the trea—differ with the Commissioner’s caustic condemnation. But the latter, backed by the Mayor, has intensified inspection efforts, concentrating more units in the district, and turning up more violations, more risks. Even as the proposed new fire prevention bills went to the City Council, the Commissioner announced that the department’s stepped-up inspection of the area (between Chambers Street and Washington Square) had resulted in the serving of 784 violation orders.
The end is not yet. Although this latest debacle is no longer headline news it has set in motion still more incentive, more machinery for ferreting out fire hazards and curbing or eliminating them. In this respect, the sacrifice of these latest victims may not have been in vain.
What about other municipalities? They may not have the same type or volume of fire risks posed by New York’s vast garment industry, but they do have ancient buildings occupied by businesses for which the structures were never intended. Commercial buildings have become industrial occupancies. One fire chief of an Eastern city discovered, upon inspection, that a concern executing defense goods had installed a highpressure boiler upon the unreinforced floor of what was originally a light commercial structure. Worse, several hundred persons, mostly women, had been engaged to work in the occupancy. The head of this firm pleaded “defense contracts” as a reason why he could flout safety measures.
Look over “Main Street” of almost any municipality. Note the transition that has occurred in occupancies: the empty and delapidated in some districts, the rehabilitated and “streamlined” in others. As one chief expressed it, “As fast as we try to remove old hazards over the years, we encounter new ones. When times are hard, companies seek out low rentals and expect us to put up with their violations of all sorts of safety regulations. When times are flush, manufacturing or commercial space is at a premium, and what were vacancies overnight are occupied by all kinds of enterprises. And, too, we’re expected to condone violations under the excuse that ‘we haven’t got time to make the improvements.’” Expediency—how many crimes are committed in thy name!
What happened in New York City may well be duplicated—perhaps under different conditions, in other cities. The number and degree of these tragedies may well depend upon the extent and degree to which an enterprising fire service, backed by an enlightened public and judiciary seek out, locate and eradicate these “high hazard risks.”