NEW YORK, March 27, 1911 (UP) - Facing the fact that there are not less than 150 loft buildings in Manhattan alone which are veritable fire traps, and that a horror exceeding that of Saturday afternoon, which cost 142 lives, when the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was destroyed, is possible at any time, immediate planes to remedy this situation were set on foot to-day. At the same time the district attorney's and coroner's offices started an inquiry to place the blame for Saturday's holocaust.
It seemed certain, however, that the fault was not alone negligence of individuals, but laxity in the laws, and that it will be necessary to appeal to the Legislature for relief.
District Attorney Whitman said that he intended to have the grand jury make a sweeping investigation, which will be entirely independent of that of the coroner.
He intends that the blame shall be squarely placed and if criminal negligence is proven the persons responsible will be punished. He to-day assigned Assistant District Attorneys Bostwick, Manley and Rubin to conduct the various sections of the inquiry. He intimated that he was already in possession of information that indicated the inspection of the office and factory buildings of the city have been criminally lax.
The provisions of the law demanding standpipes, three separate stairways, sprinklers, automatic fire alarms, etc., have not been complied with in more than one-third of the big buildings in the city.
Whitman is already convinced that had there been an automatic fire alarm in the building in which the Triangle Company's plant is located, fifteen minutes would have been saved by the firemen in reaching the scene, and that time would have enabled them to get up onto the upper floors and led many of those who lost their lives to safety by means of the roof and adjoining structures.
Whitman said that Fire Commissioner Waldo and Chief Croker had cited to him many instances of where the city building department had hampered the work of the fire department, and he said that he was in favor of asking the Legislature to give the fire department the same control over factory and office buildings that is now held over theatres.
Whitman's inspection of the building has shown criminal negligence on somebody's part. The big doors leading to the stairways were reinforced with iron and opened inward so that those who tried to open them were penned against them.
Chief Croker and Deputy Chief Binns reported to the district attorney that they found charred bodies piled in front of the doors on the ninth floor, showing that dozens of girls had rushed straight for the doors but the first comers had failed to get the doors back and immediately the pressure from behind made it an impossibility to open the exits. The specifically states that such doors shall open outwardly, "wherever practical," and the fire department officials united in saying that these doors could as easily have been arranged to open that way as inwardly.
The law also stipulates that factory doors and exits must be left unlocked during working hours, but the survivors of the horror unite in asserting that it was the rule of the proprietors of the Triangle factory to have all of the doors securely locked. As an excuse they say this was necessary as employees would report for work and then leave without letting anyone know, only returning to report off duty.
The single "inside" fire escape in the building has been photographed for use in the grand jury investigation. It is so narrow that only one person could descend at a time and of the kind characterized by the firemen as utterly useless. So called fireproof buildings in which category the Asch Building was, are required to install fire escapes in the "discretion" of the city building department. The officials never compelled the installation of any on this structure. The district attorney and his assistants are to-day examing fifty persons who had knowledge of conditions in the burned building. These include the proprietors of the factory on the lower floors: Joseph G. Ash, owner of the structure, who arrived from Florida late yesterday, and a number of the survivors of the horror.
That it was the habit of many of the workers to smoke cigarettes and pipes despite the inflammable material they handled has already been established by the fire marshal. The rule against smoking, while conspicuously displayed, according to Fire Marshal Beers was a dead letter in the Triangle factory and he says that the cause of the fire may have been a lighted match or a cigarette carelessly thrown aside by a smoker.
It is unlikely, however, that the real cause will ever positively be known. The proprietors of the factory say they think it came from a heated jammed pulley while other survivors say an explosion took place just as the fire broke out.
While preparations for fixing the responsibility for the horror went on apace to-day the various charitable organizations and civil bodies started out to care for the destitute dependents of the victims and to bury the dead. Mayor William J. Gaynor headed a subscription list to be distributed through the Red Cross committee of the New York charity organizations. The various newspapers also prepared to raise funds as did the ladies' waist and dressmakers' union, with which a number of the dead were affiliated. This latter organization also prepared to bury the unidentified dead.
A large lot has been secured in the plot of the workman's circle, a Jewish sick and death benefit organization in Mount Sinai, to bury those unidentified and others whose friends are too poor to pay the undertaker. The union has ordered that all members refrain from working to-morrow when it is planned to hold most of the funerals, and to participate in a monster funeral procession.
Other labor organizations are expected to join and the whole is to make a united protest against the lax laws which made the horror possible.
Of the 142 bodies that had been taken to the morgue up to noon yesterday, when it was decided all of the dead had been recovered, all but 53 had been identified to-day. All through the night the old covered charities pier had been besieged by persons whose loved ones were missing, but most of the remaining bodies are so terribly charred that identification seems impossible. A heavy rain that began to fall soon after dark last night drove the mere curiosity seekers away, but those who were honestly seeking relatives or friends stood in line, although in many instances wet to the skin, until they were permitted to enter.
With daylight the line began to grow again and before 9 o'clock there were more than a thousand people waiting to get inside. The police and nurses on duty permitted the people to enter a few at a time in order that confusion might be prevented.
All of the bodies had been placed in roughly painted pine boxes and, where it was possible, the head had been elevated so that recognition might be facilitated. As quickly as identification was made the lids were clamped on the coffins and they were placed at the rear of the pier to await transfer by the undertakers to the sorrowing homes.
Over at the Mercer street police station the police have half a hundred women's hats and furs, as well as other articles of wearing apparel and valuables, arranged around the floor of the reserve squad room. These belonged to the dead and were being held for the relatives to identify and claim. There are also in the captain's safe a number of pay envelopes and pieces of jewelry picked up in the street after the victims jumped.
There were fourteen injured victims of the fire still in Sts. Vincent's, the New York and Bellvue Hospital to-day. Of these it was said five at least are so terribly hurt that they cannot recover.
How the fire started will perhaps never be known. A corner on the eighth floor was its point of origin, and the three upper floors only were swept. On the ninth floor fifty bodies were found, sixty-three or more persons were crushed to death by jumping, and more than thirty bodies clogged the elevator shafts. The loss to property will not exceed $100,000.
Pedestrians going home through Washington place to Washington square at ten minutes to 5 were scattered by the whizz of something rushing through the air before them; there was a horrible plop on the pavement, and a body flattened on the flags. Wayfarers on the opposite side of the street shaded their eyes against the setting sun and saw the windows of the three upper floors of the building black with girls crowding the sills.
"Don't jump; don't jump!" yelled the crowd, but the girls had no choice. The pressure of the maddened hundreds behind them and the urging of their own fears were too strong.
Four alarms were rung in within fifteen minutes. Before the engines could respond, before the nets could be stretched or the ladders raised, five girls had fallen from the eighth and ninth floors, broken through the glass and iron roofs of the sub-cellars, and crashed through the very streets into the vaults below. In half an hour the fire was out; in half an hour it had done its worst; probably the death list was full in twenty minutes.
Seven hundred hands, 500 of them women, were employed by the shirt-waist company. They sat in rows at their machines, the tables before them piled with flimsy cloth, the floors littered with lint, the air itself full of flying, inflammable dust. The first rush of flame was almost an explosion. Operators died in their chairs, their lungs seared by inhaling flame. Others were crowded into the elevator shafts after the cars had made their last trip. Still others were pushed off the inadequate interior fire escape.
In such a horrible stream did the bodies pour from the windows that the fire nets, stretched by the first companies to arrive, were soon gorged beyond capacity. Twelve bodies weighted one net to the bursting point, but the bodies kept on raining to the pavement, through meshes that could no longer support them.
In the office buildings across Washington place, scores of men beyond office hours worked at their desks. One of them saw a girl rush to a window and throw up the sash. Behind her danced a curtain of yellow flame. She climbed to the sill, stood in black outline against the light, hesitating, then, with a last touch of futile thrift, slipped her chatelaine bag over her wrist and jumped. Her body went whirling downward through the woven wire glass of a canopy to the flagging below. There followed more, going to death in the long fall. It was 85 feet from the eighth floor to the ground, about 95 feet from the ninth floor and 115 feet from the cornice of the roof.
At a ninth floor window a man and a woman appeared. The man embraced the woman and kissed her. Then he hurled her to the street and jumped. Both were killed. Five girls smashed a window, dropped in a struggling tangle and were crushed into a shapeless mass.
A girl on the eighth floor leaped for a fireman's ladder which reached only the sixth floor. She missed, struck the edge of a life net and was picked up with her back broken. From a window a girl about 13 years old, a woman, a man and two women with their arms about one another threw themselves to the ground in rapid succession. The little girl was whirled to the New York Hospital. She screamed as the driver and a policeman lifted her into the hallway. A surgeon came out, took one look at her face and touched his hand to her wrist. "She is dead," he said.
Jimmie Lehan, a traffic squad policeman, dashed up eight flights of stairs when the fire was at its height, braced his shoulders against a barred door and burst it in. He found a score of girls mad with fright. He ordered them down the smoke-filled stairways, but they balked. He used his club, and beat them down to safety. Not one of the number perished.
A pale girl bent over a misshapen mass long and doubtingly. Then, with a final effort, she grasped a hand which protruded from beneath the canvas, and with a shriek collapsed. The blackened mass, she sobbed, had been her sweetheart, to whom she had become engaged the night before the disaster. A ring, overlooked by the police, had told her of his identity. She asked if the dead man had a watch. They brought it to her; she opened it and gazed at her own features.
A cutter identified his dead sweetheart by their engagement ring and her purse. It contained her week's wage, $3.
A young man found his sweetheart, burned and blackened, and fell across the coffin in a faint.