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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Triangle Fire

Airs Tuesday, February 25, 2014 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Women sitting at sewing machines in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, with piles of white fabric in front of them. A sign attached to the ceiling at the back says "Fire Escape" and has a hand pointing to a window.

Bodies of Triangle Fire victims lay where they landed after jumping from the factory; a policeman looks up towards the building.
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Above: Bodies of Triangle Fire victims lay where they landed after jumping from the factory; a policeman looks up towards the building.

Striking shirtwaist makers selling copies of The Call, the New York socialist newspaper.
Enlarge this image

Above: Striking shirtwaist makers selling copies of The Call, the New York socialist newspaper.

Deadliest Workplace Accidents

View a timeline of some of the deadliest workplace accidents going back to 1860.

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. The blaze ripped through the congested loft; huge piles of trimmings fed the flames. Petrified workers desperately tried to make their way downstairs, but the factory owners kept the doors on the ninth floor locked and the woefully inadequate fire escape soon crumpled.

Hundreds of horrified on-lookers arrived just in time to see young men and women jumping from the windows. By the time the fire had burned itself out, 146 people were dead.

Less than two years earlier, the workers of the factory had been leaders in an industry-wide strike to protest dismal wages and dangerous working conditions. Despite unlikely support from some of the wealthiest women in the city, including Anne Morgan, most of the workers returned to their shops without having their demands met.

It took the tragedy of the fire and the ensuing public outrage to force government action. The landmark legislation that followed gave New Yorkers the most comprehensive workplace safety laws in the country.

"Triangle Fire" tells the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers, and the struggle for safe workplace conditions in America.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is on Facebook, and you can follow @AmExperiencePBS on Twitter. Past episodes of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE are available for online viewing.

Triangle Fire Preview

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York's Greenwich Village. By the time the fire had burned itself out, 146 people were dead. The landmark legislation that followed gave New Yorkers the most comprehensive workplace safety laws in the country.

Interview with Author Kristin Downey

Author Kristin Downey on the labor rights activist Frances Perkins, who would go on to become the secretary of labor and the first woman in a U.S. Cabinet.