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Sunday, February 21, 2010

IRONY AS FUEL

I guess the first irony was that if it had to happen, this was the best of all possible places and times for it to happen. It was a Saturday, so the streets around Washington Square Park, at the bottom of 5th Avenue and the junction of West 4th Street, were not as crowded as they would have been on a regular work day. That meant the rescue efforts were not slowed by traffic. The building in which the fire had been sparked was the ten story Asch Building, a modern “fire proof” structure. And the flames were born just after 4:30 p.m., so it was still daylight. The early spring darkness would have made the hell that was about to descend on lower Manhattan, just that much worse. It was March 25, 1911, and it was the best of all possible times and places for hell to be unleashed.
The first alarm was sent in from Box Number 289 on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, just one block East of Washington Square Park. It was just 4:40 p.m. The fire at that moment was less than five minutes old. The alarm sounded at Company #18 on 12th street.
At the sound of the bells, the three horses on each unit began to move on their own from their stalls. In addition the lead horse in each team had been trained to pull ropes that opened the fire house doors. The fire horses were eager to answer the alarm. It was in their blood. Upstairs the firemen, just as eager, leapt to their lockers, pulled on their boots, baggy pants and great coats. By the time they were sliding down the brass pole all the horses were waiting in place beneath the traces, which were hanging from the ceiling. The traces were dropped onto the team’s backs and the crews slapped on the leather. Within moments the “steamers” (pumpers, able to produce 1,000 gallons of water a minute), the hook and ladder wagon (company #20, carrying the tallest extension ladders in the city - another piece of good luck), the hose wagon (company #72) and the supply wagons, with all their human  crews hanging on for dear life, were speeding their way toward Washington Square Park.
In a squat block-sized building at the junction of west 10th Avenue, West Side Avenue and Gransevoort Street, the same alarms sounded as well. Here, in the Granesvoort Pumping Station, was the city’s answer to the invention of the skyscraper; five Allis-Chalmers electrical centrifical pumps, able at the flick of a switch to send 300 gallons of water a minute into the pipes. The new High Pressure System was less than five years old and was designed to increase water pressure at each fire hydrant in the district from 25 to at least 90 pounds per square inch. In tests this system had been able to send a stream of water as high as a tenth floor of office buildings. As soon as the alarm sounded on this Saturday afternoon, the pumps were turned on. Within three minutes the lines were fully pressurized, before a single firemen had even arrived on the scene. But it was already too late.
It was 4:44 p.m.; four minutes since the alarm had been sounded - less than ten minutes since the fire had broken out.  As the first pumper turned the corner onto Greene Street (above), the horses, heading on their own toward the fire plug, reared and suddenly stopped. The firemen on board were almost thrown to the ground. One fireman dismounted to see what had spooked his horses.
He saw a bolt of cloth lying in the street. He moved to pick it up, before he realized it was a woman’s body, crumpled on the pavement.
As he stood in shock a second woman plummeted to the ground with a sickening thud. Looking up, the fireman saw smoke pouring out of the upper story windows. On the sidewalk and street were the bodies of previous jumpers. At about the same moment “Hook and Ladder Company # 20” had barely made the turn onto Washington Place, when the horses here also reacted with horror to the carnage on the street. Firemen grabbed blankets and nets, designed to catch people leaping out of buildings. But these women, some as young as 13, were dropping from the ninth floor. They ripped right through the fabric and thudded onto the concrete.
A few even landed on the doors covering service elevators. They smashed right through the steel and landed in the basement below. The rescue nets and blankets were useless.
As Fire Chief Worth arrived, firemen were leading their horses and pumpers through the rain of bodies into position. Chief Worth immediately sent in a second alarm. It was 4:48 p.m. As soon as the pumper and ladder units were in position, firemen disconnected the horses and led them to the safety of Washington Square Park, where they could be watered and calmed down.
Immediately upon their arrival fireman from Company 18 began to fight their way up the stairs against the stream of frantic civilians, pouring down. The firemen found fire on the 8th floor, and per their training, they stopped there to fight it. To have gone higher would have put them above the fire, a suicidal position in a building blaze.
But just one floor above them, the fast majority of victims were dieing, some leaping to their deaths as the flames began to engulf their clothing.
Outside, the ladder companies began to crank their extensions toward the huddled victims on the ninth floor ledges. But the ladders only reached to the seventh floor. The streams of water from the high pressure hoses, even with the aid of pumpers, could only manage to reach the sixth floor. The desperate women and girls, with the flames licking at their backs, and seeing salvation fall two stories short, stepped into space and dropped to their deaths. Some waited too long and fell like flaming meteors.
The corpses were pilling up on the street like discarded dolls. Some were so badly burned it was impossible to tell if they were male or female. Some were so broken by the fall that they could be gathered into bushel baskets and carted away.
Firemen were now dragging their high pressure hoses into the building and up the stairwells, hitting the fire directly. At 4:56 p.m. Chief Worth sent in third alarm. At 4:57 p.m. the last body thudded to the pavement on Greene street. By 5:10 p.m., when the fourth alarm was sounded, the fire was well out. As David Von Drehle has noted, “The entire blaze, from spark to embers, lasted half an hour.” (“Triangle, the fire that changed America”)
In that brief span of time the fire had killed 141 people, most of them seamstress for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The fireproof building, true to its name, did not burn. Only the furniture and the people inside it did. The building still stands today.
It was a day in American history when everything went right. It was a day when 141 people died in less than 30 minutes. It was a day so piled with irony, it could have been fuel for the fire. 
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