On March 25, 1911, as 500 of its young women workers were preparing to leave for the day, a fire broke out on the eighth floor. Within minutes, the fire had spread out of control. Workers panicked. Some crowded into freight elevators. Others rushed to the narrow stairwells. There, they found their way blocked – the company had locked most exits to prevent workers from stealing. A single fire escape collapsed under the weight of the fleeing women.Fire trucks rushed to the scene, but their ladders were too short to reach the loft. Horrified bystanders watched as workers, many with their clothes and hair on fire, jumped from the windows to their death on the street below.
In less than 30 minutes, 146 people were killed. Investigators failed to determine the cause of the fire. But they found many people at fault – the factory owners, the fire department, and city officials. The tragedy drew attention to unsafe factory conditions and helped start a reform movement.After the fire, New York City passed laws to improve workplace safety.