One hundred forty-six people perished in a matter of minutes in one of New York City’s most horrific fires—The Triangle Waist Company Fire in March of 1911. Most of the victims were young immigrant girls, all of them perished needlessly.
A significant number of lives might have been saved if the owners of the garment factory, located in the Asch Building in lower Manhattan, had installed Anna Connelly’s invention.
Fires in New York City were nothing new, but by 1900 what had changed was the height of the buildings. As the city grew, the buildings grew upward into the age of the skyscraper.
Unfortunately, many, if not most of the fire wagons had ladders and hoses that were only capable of reaching the fourth floor. When fires broke out on the upper floors of a building, the conflagrations quickly spread and anyone trapped above the fourth floor had a dismal chance of survival.
The Triangle Fire broke out on the upper three floors of the ten-story building.
Safety codes were extremely limited and lenient at the turn of the twentieth century in cities across America. Like many other entrepreneurs, the owners of the Triangle Waist Company paid more attention to increasing their profits than they did to ensure the safety of their workers.
Located on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, the Asch Building had been designed with wide open upper floor patterns, making the space ideal for garment work. The rooms were gigantic with numerous long tables for cutters of the cotton fabric. The building had two small elevators and each floor had an exit door that was shielded by a partition. This purposeful design guaranteed that only one worker at a time could exit. The night watchman could then inspect each girl’s handbag, in the event she was trying to smuggle extra scraps of cloth out of the factory.
If you take the high flammability of cotton, small elevators, a puny fire escape, wide open rooms, and an exit that would allow only one person at a time to vacate the building…it was a space designed for a fire calamity.
According to the newspaper reports, the fire broke out on the eighth floor, quickly spread upward, and the workers trapped within the Triangle Company had literally no chance of survival. Some jumped to their deaths down an empty elevator shaft, others leaped from windows, but most of them died in the flames.
In 1887 Anna Connelly of Philadelphia had submitted a patent for her newest invention—a fire escape bridge. The precursor to modern-day fire escapes had already been invented, but Connelly’s patent was for a bridge type structure that would connect adjacent buildings at the roof line. If a fire broke out and people could get to the top of the building, they could escape across the ‘bridge’ to safety at the building next door. In the patent drawing, one can see that the bridge was open at both ends, and had steel or iron railings along the sides to prevent anyone from falling off—especially people running and pushing in panic mode.
Little is known of Anna Connelly’s life. According to city records, she was already filing patents by 1877 for less significant inventions, but her fire escape bridge is her most valuable contribution. Like many other women inventors, her name is only mentioned briefly in history. No modern fire escape safety system bears her name.
If only the owners of the Asch Building had paid attention to the potential lifesaving ability of her invention, the Triangle Fire might have had a different outcome.
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~ linda ~