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1910 Newark Factory Fire

by Mary Alden Hopkins
published April 1911 McClure's Magazine" Volume 36, Number 6

ON Saturday, November 26, 1910, between nine and ten in the morning, a Newark factory, standing at the corner of Orange and High streets, caught fire. The building was clear from other buildings on all four sides; there was a fire-engine across the street, and a truck and ladder around the corner. Yet six girls were burned to death, and nineteen died as a result of leaping to the pavement from the fourth-story windows.

In order to understand how this catastrophe was possible, it is necessary to know the history of the building. This history is significant because it is the history of thousands of buildings all over the country, which, erected for one purpose, have been altered to serve for another purpose in the least immediately expensive manner.

The building was a part of an estate, one of the owners and managers of which was J. Nathaniel Glass of New York City. It was a piece of property that had been in the family for many years. The building was put up in 1855, before the Civil War, and was first used for the manufacture of firearms. Ericsson designed the Monitor here. Later the Domestic Sewing Machine Company took the building, and for years made their machines here. When they moved away, an assortment of manufactories occupied the place, and the building became an "omnibus" building, that is, one holding several kinds of manufactories, sometimes explosive, sometimes inflammable. At one time there were three companies there that kept on hand three hundred gallons of naphtha, five gallons of naphtha, and two gallons of gasolene respectively. At the time of the fire the building contained only one explosive manufactory, but this one was neatly sandwiched between two inflammable ones.

On the first floor were the Drake-Morrison Paper Box Company and John Blevney, machinist; on the second the Newark Paper Box Company; on the third the Anchor and the Aetna Electric companies, controlled by the same officers; and on the fourth the Wolf Muslin Undergarment Company, with offices at 119 West Twenty-fifth Street, New York City.

Thus the building erected before the days of fire-proof construction and designed for the manufacture of Army pistols, which are neither explosive nor inflammable in the making, came to be used for the manufacture of both inflammable and explosive goods. Alterations had been made in adapting the building to its changing uses, but there had been no attempt to render it fire-proof.

The floors were wooden and were two inches thick when they were laid. Nowadays floor requirements for new construction in New Jersey call for three and three fourths inch thickness. For fifty years this two-inch planking had been soaked in grease and oil from machinery.

The stairs were wooden. From the lower floors there were several exits, but from the fourth floor there was only one stairway, forty inches wide, inclosed with wooden planking on both sides. The staircases were at one side of an open elevator-shaft To get from the foot of one staircase to the top of the next, the girls had to walk around three sides of the elevator-shaft.

At the foot of the narrow inclosed stairway that led down from the fourth floor to the third was a door thirty-two inches wide. One of the workmen in the building, when testifying before the coroners jury, distinguished this door from other doors on the third floor by calling it the little door. The "little door," which was the only exit from the fourth floor, was kept locked during work hours. This was in direct defiance of the statute of 1904, which forbids the locking or bolting of the main exit.

The building was classed extra-hazard by the insurance companies, and rated $2.09 gross on contents and $1.69 gross on building. For a good character risk the rate would have been $1.

Unwillingness to Protect Women Employees

This building, erected fifty years ago for men to make army pistols in, was now, when unsafe from construction, age, and contents, filled with women making paper boxes, lamps, and muslin night-gowns. The number of women employed varied from week to week, but the average numbers were fifty on the first-floor, forty on the second, fifteen on the third, and on the fourth an average of seventy-five; on the day of the fire there were one hundred and sixteen women on the fourth floor. Whereas the employees had formerly been all men, there were now about two hundred women and some fifteen men. The few alterations made to meet the needs of women workers were due entirely to the kindness of the employers. The State factory statutes made no concession to the sex of factory workers. The New Jersey Department of Labor has not power to compel an employer to provide proper sanitary arrangements. When the Department issued an order to Frank P. Venable, calling for suitable toilet accommodation for each sex on each floor of the Pope Mill, Paterson, he refused to comply. When a suit was brought to compel his observance, the case was not supported by the court, as it was held that the present law was not properly drawn to cover this particular situation.*
[*Report of the Department of Labor; New Jersey, 1909.]

What Was The Matter with the Fire-Escapes?

A State, that does not guarantee its women even proper sanitary accommodations can hardly be expected to understand that women need a different sort of fire-escape and more fire-escapes than men. Up to 1903 there was only a part of a fire-escape on this building, and it was a vicious affair, a cross between a ladder and a stairway, extending from a fire balcony on the fourth floor to a fire balcony on the third floor. Upon the order of the City Building Department, this was extended. An iron ladder, flat against the wall, connected the fire balcony on the third floor with the roof of the boiler-house. Just why the roof of the boiler-house was chosen as an island of safety from fire danger is not clear.

In 1906 the City Building Department served notice that two additional fire-escapes must be placed, one at the north and one at the south end. The owner replied that the City Building Department no longer had authority 'over his building, Because the New Jersey's Legislature had, by the Acts of 1904, placed the responsibility for fire-escapes on the Department of Labor. The City Building Department did not contest the point, did riot refer the matter to the Common Council. The Building Department was content to leave responsibility for the safety of its factory employees entirely in the hands of the Labor Department.

The Labor Department ordered one additional fire-escape. This was placed, most unfortunately, over the public highway, so that the descent from the second-story fire balcony to the ground must be by means of a ladder hanging from the third-floor balcony, and placed in position by hand at need. This iron ladder was too heavy for women to manipulate without practice. Inside the windows that gave upon the fire-escapes it was necessary to build wooden platforms and steps, because the window-sills were forty-eight inches above the floors.

Thus the fire-escape provision for two hundred women in an extra-hazardous building was two fire-escapes, both of which were difficult to get to, and which ended, one in the air and the other on the roof of a boiler-house.

How the Fire Originated

The fire that brought to light these abominable conditions broke out in the Anchor Lamp factory on the third floor. A young girl, Sadie Hampson, was "flashing filaments" for lamps at her machine. She placed the filaments, or carbons, in a vacuum-pump, removed the air, and filled the vacuum with gasolene vapor, switched an electric current through the filaments, and thus carbonized them. This is the process, but the girl had no understanding of it at all. All she knew was that she pushed carbons into an opening and pressed buttons "like it was a typewriter." She also knew that at night she must cover the meter and carry it into the office. Beyond this she knew nothing at all about her machine. She wasn't hired to understand about the vacuum and the gas and the electric current; she was hired to press buttons, and, if anything went wrong, to call the boss. That is the common way in factories — many girls at machines to perform mechanical actions, and a boss to do the thinking for all.

"I don't know how it started," Sadie Hampson explained to the coroner's jury, "because I don't understand electricity. The boss understands, and he'll tell you if you ask him. The boss always told me to be careful, and I was careful. There was a flash of fire into my face, and I screamed, 'Mr. McQuat!' I guess I must I have called different from usual, for I often call 'Mr. McQuat' when I get out of carbons, and he calls back, 'Wait a minute!' But this I time he ran right out of the office, so I must I have called different. I don't know what happened next. No, I don't know how I got out of the building, I was frantic with fright. I only know there was an awful flash and I called 'Mr. McQuat!' I just thought that if I got my boss everything would be all right."

Mr. McQuat seized a bucket of sand and flung it on the flames, while others rushed down to the yard for more sand. They tried to put the fire out themselves, without calling the firemen across the street. They had done this before. If they called in the firemen the fire would go on the records of the Fire Department. The building already had a bad name -— a record for ten known fires in ten years. If, however, they put the fire out without calling in the firemen, it would not go on record and the insurance companies would, not hear of it. When a factory has the habit of incipient fires, it is just as well not to advertise the fact.

When it was clear that the buckets of sand wouldn't put out this blaze, a girl rushed across the street and gave the alarm at the fire-house. Captain Van Volkenberg and a fireman hurried over with a fire-extinguisher. They did not send in a general alarm, because, when a fireman calls the other companies to a fire that he might have put out with a hand-extinguisher, he is reprimanded.

The fire was so rapid that, when Captain Van Volkenberg reached the third floor, he rushed to the window, smashed the glass, and yelled, "Pull the box!" This alarm went in at 9.26. The captain and Mr. McQuat were later rescued by ladders.

No Fire-Alarms in the Building

There was no sort of fire-alarm in the building -— a building that was listed as extra-hazardous and in which ten fires had already broken out. The girls were all out of the first, second, and third floors-before any one remembered those on the fourth floor. There were one hundred and sixteen girls and an errand-boy there, under the charge of Miss Anna Haag, the forewoman.

One Hundred and Sixteen Girls Cut off on the Fourth Floor

It is difficult to know what happened during the next ten minutes. It is clear that Miss Haag unlocked the door at the foot of the stairs, that it was fastened open with a hook, that a few girls ran downstairs, that Lorin Paddock, the engineer, ran up, and that then, in some way, the door slammed to and was again locked. I have talked with girls who escaped from the building by the stairs, by the fire-escapes, or by I flinging themselves from the windows; but their stories are confused. I think they themselves do not know clearly what happened. Probably from the moment those hundred and sixteen girls looked up from their work and knew that they were trapped on the top floor, fifty feet from the ground, with the fire below them, they were in the grip of fire fright. They agree that the fire-escapes were entirely inadequate; that the wooden platform that gave on to one of them crashed and fell to the floor like paste-board; that the window-sashes fell on the girls as they struggled out; that the girls did not throw themselves from the windows till the heat was unendurable; that the girls could not manage the drop ladder at the front fire-escape; and that they jumped from the boiler roof to the ground at the rear fire- escape. From the bits the different girls have told me, you can piece the story together for yourself:

"Every one was saying, 'What's the matter? What's the matter?'"

"Marie says that when she first saw the smoke coming through a knothole in the floor, she put a piece of cloth over it to try to keep it out."

"Miss Haag ran down the stairs and unlocked the door, and then she come running back, and she throwed her hands up and cried, 'Run, girls, run!'"

"I quick run down the stairs. The girls were all pushing toward the coat-rack."

"They say M——— went to the looking-glass and, pinned on her hat."

Story Told by Molly Kelly, Who Escaped by the Stairs

"A piece-worker must keep her eyes on her machine if she wants to make out, and I didn't know anything was wrong until I happened to look up and saw all the girls running to one end of the room. I thought there had been an accident. Then I saw smoke. I walked over toward the coat-rack; but just then. Mrs. Wood crossed in front of me to go down the stairs, and I turned and followed her downstairs mechanically, without thinking at all. It seemed as if the first body dropped as soon as I reached the sidewalk. Every time a body fell I would run across the street to see if I knew the girl, and then run back again to the other side. I never saw such faces.

When Miss Kelly got home her face was black with smoke; she was wearing her little white work-apron, and her white shirt-waist was stained with blood. It was bitterly cold and her lips were blue. She looked at her friend in a dazed way and remarked vaguely, "I think I'll go to Cogswell's and see if they will give me a job." The nervous shock of what she had seen that morning did not wear off for weeks.

The Story of Clara Diehm, Who Got Down the Rear Fire-Escape

"I ran to the stairs, but I didn't dare go down, because the smoke was thick. I knew the fire was below. I ran to the back fire-escape. The girls were all crowding on to the inside wooden platform and the steps, and hanging on to the railing. I saw the window fall after a girl went through, and the girls behind had to put it up again before the next girl could get out. I was standing on the steps when the platform broke. The girls thought the floor was giving way, and all rushed to the other windows. My sister Catherine was standing just outside the rail, wringing her hands, when the steps broke. She could have got out if the steps hadn't broken. When I think that my sister died because those steps broke, I cannot bear it. I climbed up over the sill and out the window. There wasn't any crowd on the^ fire-escape then, because it took so long to get out the window. We had to jump off the roof of the boiler-house. A fireman helped me. Some of the girls hurt themselves jumping. I sat on the ground and held Angela in my arms. She had broken her leg. I could see the girls jumping from the window, but I didn't know my sisters were among them."

One of the sisters, Sophie, was caught in the life-net. The other died from her fall.

Story Told by Mrs. Ross, Who Jumped into the Life-Net

"I saw smoke coming up the belting-hole. I ran to the rear fire-escape, but it was crowded. Then the steps broke. I started toward the stairs, but Lorin Paddock came up then, and his face was black with smoke, and I thought I couldn't get down that way. The smoke was so thick I couldn't breathe, and I rushed to a window and broke the glass with my hand. Then some one got the window up. The men below called not to jump; they said a net was coming. When the net came, it looked so little. Hattie Delaney jumped the minute it was opened. She looked like a fly tumbling off the wall when she went down. I climbed on the sill; but I caught my foot between the steam-pipes, and I couldn't get it out. The men carried the net to the next window. The girls got my foot out and said, 'Now jump.' I said, 'I won't jump till they bring the net back.' The sill was so hot I had to keep moving my hands. Then they brought the net back, and I jumped. I didn't know when I was falling, but I knew when they took me off the net. I felt as if my head and heels were being pushed together. When they took the first of us into the hospital, the nurses thought we were negroes, our faces were so black with smoke. They cut our clothes off us and fixed us up a little, and laid us on beds. They couldn't do much right then, there were so many of us."

When I saw Mrs. Ross, a month later, she could sit up part of the time. Her neck was sprained and her leg badly cut.

Story of a Slavic Girl Who Fell to the Pavement

"Something in my head turns round with me. I get hot in my head. If there is a sound in the night, I scream. I think my bed is breaking, and such nonsense. The roof was blazing, and I think, 'I jump, and my mama gets my bones; if I am alive she will be thankful to God; if dead she will bury me. I will not be burned by the flames!' They took me into the little wooden house side of the factory and gave me a drink of water. I said, 'I am all right; I will go home. No, I have no car-fare.' All the time a lady was calling the ambulance. I knew again when they put hot-water bottles around me in the bed. There were so many bottles, but my teeth were chattering. I did not feel any pains until the doctor-touched my feet. Then I screamed. All my side is broken. Eleven were laying in one room in the hospital. We all knew each other. Three died in one day in that room. I can see Miss Haag standing by the safe. She was laying in the hospital with us. The blood dropped from her feet all the time. She died."

Lorin Paddock's Story

As soon as Lorin Paddock, the engineer of the building, knew there was a fire, he made straight for the fourth floor. First he opened the elevator door to see if that could be used, but the smoke came up in a cloud. The halls were already charged with smoke. The girls were crowded about the two fire-escapes and the windows where there were no fire-escapes. Paddock stood by a window on the High Street side, with a little girl named Mildred Wolters. They stood there till the flames caught Mildred's dress and hair and sealed Paddock's neck. Then Paddock swung the girl out of the window, and held her over a ladder that had been raised to the third-story window below. He told her to grab for that ladder as she struck it. Then he dropped her into the thick smoke. He heard her strike the ladder, but she did not catch hold. A girl who came off the fire-escape just then saw Mildred's red dress lying on the pavement, and she went up to it; but Mildred did not move, and some one said she was dead. Lorin Paddock swung himself out of the window, and dropped as Mildred had dropped; but he caught the ladder and got to the ground. Then he rushed under a falling body, caught the woman in his arms, and heard his shoulder snap. "After that I was out of it," he said.

Fire Chief Asher left the courthouse as the alarm rang in. This was at 9.26. He went straight to the fire in his machine. A three- minute run, he calls it, as a fire chief drives. As the car swung into High Street——"My God," cried the chauffeur, "there's a hundred girls on that top floor!" He was wrong. At that time, five, six, at the most seven minutes after the alarm was sounded, there was not one living girl on the top floor!, though there were six dead ones there. The others were on the pavement before the building. ' - .

"It" was over. When a Newark person spoke of "it," he meant the two minutes during which forty girls leaped from the windows "like you'd throwed a load of bricks out of the window."

A man in the silver-plating factory across the street looked out of a window. "There is girls on the fire-escape," he cried. "Come on, youse fellows. My God! this will be one hell of a fire!"

The men from the silver-plating factory across the street and the men from the meat-storage house round the corner rushed to the fire-truck already there. A woman was hanging out of a window fifty feet above them. "Give us a hand with this here ladder," cried a fireman. "Take Number 50!" The men tugged. The ladder stuck. Some one leaped on to the driver's seat and released the steering-gear that caught the ladder. The men pulled out Number 50, all the while calling, shrieking, howling to the woman not to jump. The woman was Anna Haag.

The Men Could Not, Raise the Ladder

No one knows what the trouble was. The extension- ladder would not work. It- reached a third-story window. Miss Haag was in a window in the fourth story. She leaned far out; choking and gasping. The smoke rolled over her in clouds. Sometimes she was hidden from view. Then came a belch of smoke flecked with red flame. "To hell with this damned ladder!" sobbed a man. Miss Haag jumped. She landed at the man's feet, and three days later she died in the hospital.

At the other end of the factory is an alley. It was here that most of the girls jumped. No ladder could be raised at this corner, because of a large tree, a gateway, two steam-pipes crossing twelve feet in the air, and a telegraph-pole heavy with wires. One girl struck the tree, and was dead before she reached the ground. One girl broke her ankle on the steam-pipe. Another came down astride the steam-pipe. Another caught by her cheek on the open picket gate, and hung until the picket broke. But the things that happened there are too horrible to relate. Here the men held the life-net——till it broke. At first the girls who leaped into the net came one by one, in rapid succession. One broke her back, twisting in air. Another hit the window-sill at the third floor and again at the second. Another bounded from the net back against the brick wall. Then three girls struck the net at once. The lock snapped and the net tore. There was only one life-net, and there were many windows, each window jammed with girls.

The firemen got the fire under control, and finally made their way to the bodies on the fourth floor. Five were bunched together in a heap, all unrecognizable. Three of these were sisters who had delayed too long, looking for one another. A sixth body sat upright at a machine. This was a woman sixty years old, and she had not moved from her chair.

The bodies were taken to the morgue. When fathers and mothers came, one man, asked his daughter's name, replied vaguely, "Oh, my God! I don't know."

One of the attendants went about his work muttering, "I've got to get my coat pressed before Sunday. I've got to get——"

A father carried one body home, thinking it was his daughter's. The coffin was set in the little dark living-room. After a while it was found that the body wore ear-rings, and the daughter had not. The father took this body back, and chose another. He was a shoemaker, and identified this one by the steel spring that he himself had put into the shoe to strengthen the instep.

Efforts to Fix the Responsibility

Immediately after the fire, a coroner's jury was summoned to hear testimony and fix the responsibility for the disaster. Dr. Edwin Steiner was the coroner; the prosecuting attorney was Wilbur A. Mott; the assistant prosecutor, Frederick Lehlbach. The death of Carrie Robrecht, one of the girls who jumped, was made the basis of the inquiry. During the first few days after the fire people in general expressed much satisfaction that "something" was going to be done. The culprits were to be brought to justice.

But the jury found that the tenant was not to blame; nor the owner; nor the City Building Department; nor the State Labor Department. In fact, no one was to blame. The verdict ran: "... said Carrie Robrecht came to her death by misadventure and accident caused by a fall, . . . and not as the result of the criminal act, either of omission or commission, on the part of any individual or individuals, whether as private citizens or public officials."

These are the steps by which the jury reached their decision:

Jersey Law Relieves Employer of Responsibility to Protect Operatives

First they considered the responsibility of the tenant. Mr. Wolf ran the Newark factory in connection with one in New York, and spent most of his time at the latter, delegating the oversight of the Newark branch to Anna Haag, the forewoman. He paid good wages——"You could make nice money at Wolf's." He treated his employees fairly ——"Miss Haag gave out the good gowns [simply made gowns] with the bad gowns [those difficult to make], and no one was favorite." The room was well ventilated and well lighted. Work was fairly steady. The general conditions were so far above the average that the National Consumers' League granted the use of its label to the firm. Many of the women had worked there for years. One of them explained that Mr. Wolf was "one grand boss."*
[*It is a significant fact that Mr. Wolf in his new factory on Seventy-second Street has twelve exits and a fire drill.]

It was thought at first that Mr. Wolf would be prosecuted under common law for gross and reckless disregard of his employees' safety, but it was soon clear that that could not be. State statutes take precedence over common law, and the State statute of New Jersey takes the responsibility of fire protection away from the tenant and places it on the owner of the building. According to the law, Mr. Wolf was wholly blameless.

It was soon clear, also, that, according to the same law, the owner, represented by J. N. Glass, was equally blameless. For the owner "had obeyed every order given by the State Labor Department —— had obeyed with extreme reluctance and with all possible delay, but still had, fulfilled the law. .

Then, if it wasn't the fault of the tenant or the owner, it seemed as if it must be the fault of the City Building Department or the State Labor Department. Forthwith Mr. William P. O'Rourke, City Superintendent of Buildings, and Colonel Lewis T. Bryant were summoned before the jury.

The part the Newark City Building Department played in the affair is absurd. The department, it developed, made some inspection of fire-escapes, occasionally issued orders for their erection, but did not attempt do enforce those orders, and when it was obvious that a factory was insufficiently provided with fire-escapes, the department put the blame on the State Labor Department.[*] The jury added Mr. O'Rourke to the growing list of men not responsible for the fire.
[*At present the State of New Jersey provides only thirteen inspectors. This small force is expected to inspect 1,700 bakeries and keep them up to the standard; 4,000 factories and enforce factory regulations; and to see that machinery is guarded, as well as to look after the fire-escapes. Besides this, they are supposed to regulate the employment of child labor. These thirteen inspectors are appointed by the Governor, and their reappointment depends entirely upon political considerations. They should, of course, be appointed by civil service.]

A Bad Law that Costs Human Lives

Colonel Brant was now the only one left to be the "culprit." This was puzzling, because lie is widely known as an excellent Labor Commissioner. He has built up his department almost single-handed, and has made ,law-breaking very unpleasant for certain manufacturing interests. Colonel Bryant surprised every one by stating that the factory had complied with the law, that the law, which apparently gives the Commissioner unlimited discretion as. to the number of fire-escapes, in reality gives him authority to compel the erection of only one fire-escape in a building like this one. The front fire-escape on the burned building was built in accordance with specifications. When Colonel Bryant made this' statement, Prosecuting Attorney Mott turned to the statutes and read:

"Fire-escapes shall be located at such places on the said buildings as may be best suited for the purpose intended, or as the Commissioner may designate in writing." He paused and looked at the Commissioner inquiringly.

"Go on — read on," replied the Commissioner.

Soon the attorney reached this paragraph:

"The Commissioner shall have power to make and have served an order . . . that a fire-escape already erected shall be changed and altered in such a manner as he shall in such order designate."

Colonel Bryant repeated the phrase "a fire-escape," and explained that this technicality was held to nullify the ostensible discretion granted him by the former paragraph.

"And you did not consider that you had authority to compel the equipment of a building with more than one fire-escape?" inquired the attorney.

"No, I did not," replied the Commissioner.

"This law is worse than nothing!" said Prosecuting Attorney Mott. "The law is a farce. Was it framed for the purpose of relieving the employer of any liability in failing to offer adequate protection to his employees?"

"You had better consult the legislature that framed it," replied Colonel Bryant.

Law Requires Only 0ne Fire-Escape

As the law is interpreted to-day in New Jersey, the owner of a factory with undivided lofts is obliged to put up only one fire-escape, no matter what kind of manufacture, he is engaged in, no matter how many employees are on each floor, no matter whether they are men or women and children. Even that one fire-escape need not be erected unless there are twenty-five persons above the second floor. A canny employer whose force is nearly that number may —— and sometimes does —— dismiss one employee or move one down to the second floor; and thriftily save the expense of putting up the escape.

Thus the law that was intended to give the Commissioner power to order the necessary number of escapes, in reality limits the number to one, and makes it impossible to compel the erection of a fire-escape on a building where there are less than twenty-five employees.

Many of the men who testified before the coroner's jury were city and State employees, who seemed chiefly concerned in saving their official heads from coming off to satisfy the popular demand that "something" be done. But others, beginning with guarded utterance, later threw aside caution and told indignantly of conditions they were powerless to change.

"There'll be a worse holocaust than this one in Newark yet," said Fire Chief Asher. " I can name a hundred factories worse than this one was. What can I do? I can't do anything! The Fire Department can't touch a building till the fire starts. And then it's too late."

One Girl Had No Trouble in Getting Out

Some of the girls who escaped told their stories before the coroner's jury. A few of the witnesses were girls so young that it seemed absurd to call them working-women. There was one child, with a solemn face and big glasses, who explained that she got out on the rear fire-escape.

"Did you have any difficulty in getting down?" inquired the attorney.

"No, sir."

"What, no difficulty?" repeated the attorney, puzzled at this variation from the usual testimony.

"No, sir. I fell, sir. Yes, sir, from the top of the fire-escape to the boiler-house roof."

Each day the jury sat, it became clearer that in the end no one would be held responsible. At the last session, one of the jurors could not contain his indignation. Mr. Schlechter, an inspector, had just testified that when he inspected the building in September, it was all right.

"How can ye say it was right?" demanded the indignant juror. "It was wrong! Man, ye know it was wrong!"

Direct Causes of the Fire

In spite of the jury's finding, the death of Carrie Robrecht and her twenty-four companions was not "accidental." They lost their lives because they worked in a building that was not decently safe for human beings to work in -- that was very dangerous for men, and more so for women. In addition to the facts that the building itself was highly inflammable, that it contained one explosive manufactory, and that ten fires had broken out in it within ten years, there were five causes of danger that might easily have been remedied:

1. The absence of any interior fire-alarm system. In this case the girls on the top floor, who were in the greatest danger, did not know that a fire had broken out until the three lower floors were emptied.

2. The fact that there was no interior exit but an inclosed wooden stairway, scarcely more than a yard wide, and directly exposed by the elevator-shaft. 3. The fact that the entire provision against fire consisted of two small fire-escapes. The two existing fire-escapes were taxed to their utmost capacity, and about sixty girls got safely down them.

4. The fact that these fire-escapes were extremely difficult of access because the window-ledges were forty-eight inches from the floor.

5. The absence of a fire or exit drill among the employees, such as is now used so successfully in public schools, and which, even in a building as bad as this, might have saved many lives.

A Hundred Other Buildings in Newark Just as Bad -- Thousands in New York

In Newark alone, according to the inspector, there are still about a hundred factories as dangerous as was this one. The Newark Evening News of November 30 quoted a number from the fire insurance records:

One building employing between five and six hundred hands, men, women,, and girls, where the industry is of a peculiarly dangerous character, and where there is not one fire-escape. Another four-story factory with six hundred and fifty employees has staircases so bad that all of the employees would have to fight for their lives on the fire-escapes. A three-story factory employing girls has an uninclosed stairway and no fire escapes. A factory employing over one hundred women on the fourth and fifth floors (the first floor of the building is used as a garage) has a solitary iron fire-escape in the rear.

Mr. Peter Joseph McKeon, Consulting Engineer on Fire Insurance and Fire Protection, says:

"Factory conditions in Greater New York are undoubtedly as bad as those just described in Newark. Any fire inspector can testify to this from personal observation. New York has nearly thirty thousand industrial establishments, with close to seven hundred thousand workers in them. These are distributed among twelve thousand buildings, only one thousand of which tare of fire-proof construction. The remaining eleven thousand factory buildings are of ordinary non-fire-proof construction, with the same wood stairways and outside fire-escapes that made the Newark factory a fire-trap."

Will Legislators and Employers Help to Avert Such Horrors?

The factory workers' only chance of protection lies in carefully drawn legislation enforced by an adequate number of inspectors appointed by civil service.

This terrible and useless sacrifice of life in Newark will not have been altogether in vain if it stirs employers throughout the country to the point of establishing fire drills in their manufactories.

It took the Iroquois Theater fire to get us efficient inspection of theaters; the "Slocum" disaster to call our attention to Steamboat conditions; and school fire after fire, culminating in the Collinwood disaster, to establish fire drills in our public schools. In Brooklyn, recently, the public school children walked out of a burning schoolhouse in the same orderly manner in which they had marched out in the practice drill; while the grown men and women employed in a factory across the street, although in no immediate danger, were so frightened that they stampeded out of the building, and several of them were injured in the crush.

Fire Drill a Great Step toward Safety

Mr. Holbrook J. Porter, who has established a system of fire drill in many factories, says that as soon as the operatives are sure that in time of danger they can get out safely, the subconscious fear, which on occasion makes a panic, dies.

In the "Survey" of January 7 Mr. Porter described his method of installing a fire drill in a seven-story cigar factory where conditions were particularly bad. The building was a brick shell with interior wooden beams, wooden floors, wooden stairs, and only two stairways. The front stairway was divided in two by a stout handrail, and given to the second- and third-floor employees. The rear stairway was given to the fourth floor. The fifth was connected by a bridge with a neighboring building. The sixth and seventh were provided for by exits to neighboring tenement roofs.

After the exits were arranged, it was necessary to teach the two thousand excitable workers, many of them foreigners, how to use them. At first there was danger of a panic at the drill itself; The managers first posted a notice that there was to be a drill. When the excitement following this announcement had cooled, the managers distributed hand-bills giving enough information about the coming drill to arouse interest. A few days later a third notice gave definite instructions, and, when all were thoroughly broken in to the idea the first drill was held.

Foremen were appointed captains; certain men had charge, of the extinguishers; others were guards at doors and dangerous stair turnings; certain women were appointed to search the coat-rooms and aid frightened women. At the signal, the girls rose, pushed stools under the tables out of the way, linked arms, two by two, and marched downstairs, never touching with their hands those in front of them. In the fire drill this seven-story building was entirely emptied of its two thousand employees in less than five minutes.

Giving the Workers a Chance for Their Lives

Concerning the facilities ordinarily supplied to protect employees against fire, Mr. Porter says:

"In the many factories .which I have examined at the request of the proprietors, to satisfy them that they were doing all they could for the safety of their employees, I have failed to find any which, in one way or another, had not introduced some obstruction to the availability of their fire-escapes, and had not allowed some of their fire-extinguishing apparatus to go uninspected until it was absolutely useless. Many factories give no thought to the subject, and on one occasion my question to the superintendent, as to what he would do in case a fire occurred right then, was met by the amazing reply that he would think of some way to get his employees out."

The problem of protecting operatives in crowded factories, even in the so-called fire-proof factories, is . by no means an easy one. But at least it is conservative to say that the employers who contributed to the forty thousand dollar fund raised for the Newark fire sufferers, and that the thousands of manufacturers everywhere who shuddered at the story of that cruel loss of life, ought, in fairness to themselves, to see that they have done what is reasonable and possible to protect the lives, of the people in their employ. An employer cannot discharge his responsibility by contributing to a fund that goes to alleviate human suffering which can never be assuaged. Besides the thirty-two girls who were injured and the twenty-five who died under such horrible circumstances, many of the girls who were employed in that Newark factory, although they escaped uninjured in body, suffered so terribly from shock and fright that they will never be well again.

If an employer has provided broad, easily accessible fire-escapes, and enough of them; if he has provided interior staircases constructed in a flame-proof manner; if he has provided inferior fire-alarms, and has taken enough interest in the safety of his people to establish a fire drill, then he has at least given his employees a chance for their lives.

 

 

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