The Browser Review Daily Letter 162

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The Binghamton Tragedy


From The Outlook August 9th 1913

by Inis Wedd

NEW YORK — It was half-past two when the fire alarm rang long and fiercely above the whir and roar of work in the Binghamton Clothing Factory with its 111 employees.

Some of the seventy girls on the top floor rose instantly from their machines; others not so quickly.

The fire drill was not popular for several reasons. It took time from the girls’ work. Time is money when one works under the “piece” system. It was embarrassing, too, going down on the public street in work clothes.

“Another of those old fire drills? I’m not going to the street as I am,” exclaimed one girl. Also, there was the fatigue of three flights of stairs to be added to that of the day’s work.

One of the employees on opening the door of a chute said she saw smoke; but even that did not alarm some of the workers, because during a previous drill one of the girls had suggested that some one should start a smudge “to see how they would act.”

Then, too, the fire alarm gave only one prolonged, continuous ring, and the employees had been trained to rise from their machines and push back their chairs on the first ring, then to start on the second ring. So, for one reason and another, part of their number did not start quite so quickly as usual.

“The smoke and the heat was frightful,” said one girl afterwards, “but we hurried down two flights of stairs. We saw the flames blazing up through the lowest flight. I ran down as many steps as I could, then threw my dress over my head and jumped over the fire. I felt myself falling, and it seemed as though I landed on a pile of girls. After that I must have lost consciousness.”

Once out, the workers saw the building all afire. They could not see the hell upon the stairs where girls were piling down upon each other, choking, frenzied, burning alive; but they saw a group crazed by burns rush across the street and plunge into the depths of Chenango River, and one girl, a mass of wind-fanned flames, run madly down four blocks before she could be caught in her death throes.

The last girls in the third and fourth floor lines had rushed screaming back into the work-rooms from which spectators saw them pouring out on the fire-escapes. They began climbing down the steep, narrow treads, only to hesitate at the leap before them. The ladder stopped at a height that necessitated a daring plunge to the pavement below. Before those ahead could act, the frantic line pushing down from above drove them to the ground, crushed, maimed, some silent, others groaning.

Those above who had been stopped by the momentary block below had climbed madly back up the ladders. In twenty-three minutes after the alarm on that windy, sunshiny summer afternoon there remained only a fiery hole where had stood a busy factory.

It had taken five minutes for the fire message to reach headquarters, because an alarm from another part of the city was being rung in over the wire. People had managed to rescue a few victims from the heap before the heat drove them back, where they stood, agonized by the suffering before them, tears streaming down their faces. In the few minutes that elapsed before the arrival of the Fire Department the building was doomed.

The factory complied with the existing fire laws, and had been examined by one of the State factory inspectors within the last few weeks. The heating, lighting, stairways, fire-escapes, the daily sweeping up and care of rubbish, the standing pails of water in case of fire, had all been approved. How did the fire start?

The fire was discovered blazing in some rolls of plush and buckram stored on shelves above the lower part of the first staircase. Smoking was prohibited, but the most probable explanation seems to be that an employee had thrown down a lighted match or cigarette butt as he passed up the stairs.

Meanwhile, the city was demanding a scapegoat. Was it an employee? Was it the employer? Was it the city fire department? Was it the labor inspector ? Was it the head of the State Department of Labor? Every individual protested his innocence. No guilty employee could be found. The employer, overwhelmed with grief, said that he had promptly taken every fire precaution required by the inspector. The latter, it was found, had required every provision demanded by the State fire laws. The head of the city fire department proved he had done his best.

Each person was quite right in protesting his individual innocence and equally wrong when he tried to blame any of the others. I quote the final findings of the Committee on Safety :

Although the factory complied with the existing labor law, there was a lamentable absence of provisions for the safety of the occupants of the building. Because this absence of such provisions is common in factories throughout the State, and because in Binghamton they have caused a frightful loss of life, it is obvious that the existing law is wholly inadequate and that there is immediate need, not only for the factory laws passed at the recent session of the Legislature, but for even more stringent requirements. The chief elements of danger in the Binghamton building were:

(1) There was but one stairway;

(2) The single stairway was not inclosed in a fireproof partition which would have protected it from flames and made it a safe exit for all the people in the building.

(3) There was a large number of openings, shafts, etc., between floors, which expedited the spread of flames from floor to floor.

(4) Reliance for emergency exit was placed upon one outside iron fire-escape, which, although allowed by the labor law, is a type of exit, shown by the experience of many fires, which more often than not (a) warps under heat; (b) collapses under a heavy load; (c) is too small to accommodate more than six or seven persons per floor; (d) becomes little less than a roasting-pen for people attempting to use it, since the flames come out of the non-fireproof windows.

(5) There were seventy people on the top floor of the building at the time of the fire, and usually about eighty worked there. The one open stairway and flimsy fire-escape which constituted the means of exit from that floor were together incapable of accommodating more than about forty persons, and this over-crowding or excessive occupancy on the top floor placed the people there in constant danger.

Of these five clearly established life hazards, the chief cause of death at the time of the fire proved to be the lack of any properly constructed, protected and safeguarded exit.

The Saturday after the fire, in Union Square in New York City, as the thousands of workers poured out of the factories, they held a vast mass-meeting to appeal for an amendment of their present fire-protection law.

It took an Iroquois Theater fire to improve the safety of theaters. It took a Titanic disaster to improve the safety of vessels. It took a Newark fire and a Triangle fire to bring New York State’s fire legislation to its present inefficiency. Now fifty-eight women have sacrificed their lives. By so doing they have proved the untruth of the statements made to the Legislature that human lives could not be destroyed by fire in low buildings. The present law was framed on this false assumption. Will the Legislature act to correct this fatal blunder? Will the Governor enable them to act by sending a special message?

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