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
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
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
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
[*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
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
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
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
"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
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
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-nettill 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
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
"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
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.
"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
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
"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
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
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,
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.