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Out of the Flames

How one brave girl survived the Triangle factory fire—a terrible tragedy that changed America forever 

Before You Read: Check out our Background Builder slideshow

 

Art by Gary Hanna

Art by Randy Pollak

    Flames clawed at her back. Black smoke filled the air. Waves of red-hot fire spread across the room.

    It was March 25, 1911. Seventeen-year-old Katie Weiner was trapped on the ninth floor of a burning building in New York City. 

    Moments earlier, fire had broken out at the factory where Katie worked. Now the flames were spreading with lightning speed. Katie had to make a terrible choice. 

    She could stay and die. 

    Or she could dive into a moving elevator and hope to survive.

    Flames clawed at her back. Smoke filled the air. Fire spread across the room.

    It was March 25, 1911. Katie Weiner was 17. And she was trapped on the ninth floor of a burning building.

    Moments before, fire had broken out at the factory where Katie worked. The flames were spreading fast. Katie had to make a choice.

    She could stay and die.

    Or she could dive into a moving elevator and hope to survive.

    Flames clawed at her back. Black smoke filled the air. Waves of red-hot fire spread across the room.

    It was March 25, 1911, and 17-year-old Katie Weiner was trapped on the ninth floor of a burning building in New York City.

    Moments earlier, fire had broken out at the factory where Katie worked. Now the flames were spreading with lightning speed. Katie had to make a terrible decision.

    She could stay and die—or she could dive into a moving elevator and hope to survive.

A Place of Hope

    Earlier that morning, Katie had walked through the streets of the Lower East Side. She lived in this New York neighborhood with her mother, brother, and sister. 

    Katie was headed to the Triangle Waist Company. She and her older sister Rose, 23, worked there making women’s blouses. Like many teenagers in 1911, Katie did not go to school. She had to work to earn money to help her family. 

    Almost everyone on the Lower East Side had come from another country. Katie’s own family had moved to New York City from Russia. To them and many other immigrants, America was a place of hope. It seemed that anyone who worked hard could get ahead.

    Earlier that day, Katie had walked through the streets of the Lower East Side. She lived in this New York City neighborhood with her mother, brother, and sister.

    Katie was headed to the Triangle Waist Company. She and her sister Rose, 23, worked there making women’s blouses. Like many teens in 1911, Katie did not go to school. She had to work. Her family needed the money.

Most people on the Lower East Side had come from another country. Katie’s family had moved to New York from Russia. To them and many other immigrants, America was a place of hope. It seemed that anyone who worked hard could get ahead.

    Earlier that day, Katie had walked through the streets of the Lower East Side, the New York neighborhood where she lived with her mother, brother, and sister.

    Katie was headed to the Triangle Waist Company, where she and her 23-year-old sister, Rose, worked making women’s blouses. Like many teenagers in 1911, Katie didn’t go to school. She had to work to earn money to help support her family.

    Almost everyone on the Lower East Side had come from another country. Katie’s own family had moved to New York City from Russia. To them and many other immigrants, America seemed like a place of hope and opportunity—a place where anyone who worked hard could be successful.

Triangle Waist Company 

    Katie felt lucky to have a job at the Triangle Waist Company. It was one of New York’s largest clothing factories. 

    Along with about 500 other workers, Katie spent 10 hours a day, six days a week making shirtwaists. These popular blouses had made the owners of the factory—Max Blanck and Isaac Harris—very rich. But workers like Katie made only about $8 a week. That’s about $200 in today’s money. 

    At the time, many factory bosses made employees work hard and paid them little. These factories were called sweatshops—and they felt like prisons. Talking and laughing were not allowed. Bosses shouted at workers. And doors were locked to keep people from taking breaks. 

    Fires were also a major problem in garment factories. In fact, there had been several small fires at Triangle. Luckily, these had happened at night, when people weren’t working. 

    A fire during the day would be a disaster. Workers were packed closely together. And there were only two narrow staircases leading to the street. A quick escape would be impossible.

    City officials had reported these unsafe conditions. But Blanck and Harris did nothing.

    Katie felt lucky to have a job at the Triangle Waist Company. It was a large clothing factory.

Along with about 500 other workers, Katie spent 10 hours a day, six days a week making shirtwaists. These popular blouses had made the factory owners—Max Blanck and Isaac Harris—rich. But workers made only about $8 a week. That’s about $200 in today’s money.

At the time, many factory workers did hard jobs for little pay. These factories were called sweatshops, and they felt like prisons. Talking and laughing were not allowed. Bosses shouted at workers. Doors were locked to keep people from taking breaks.

Fires were also a big problem in garment factories. There had been some small fires at Triangle. But they had happened at night, when people weren’t working.

A fire during the day would be awful. Workers were packed closely together. And there were only two staircases leading to the street. A quick escape would be impossible.

    City officials had reported these unsafe conditions. But Blanck and Harris did nothing.

    Katie felt fortunate to have a job at the Triangle Waist Company, one of New York’s largest clothing factories.

    Along with about 500 other workers, Katie spent 10 hours a day, six days a week making shirtwaists. These popular blouses had made the owners of the factory—Max Blanck and Isaac Harris—very wealthy. But workers like Katie earned only about $8 a week—the equivalent of about $200 today.

    At the time, many factory bosses made employees work hard in exchange for little pay. These factories were called sweatshops—and they felt like prisons. Talking and laughing were forbidden, supervisors shouted at workers, and doors were locked to prevent people from taking breaks.

    Fires were also a major problem in garment factories. In fact, there had been several small fires at Triangle. Fortunately, these had happened at night, when the factory wasn’t filled with workers.

    A fire during the day would be disastrous. Workers were packed closely together, and there were only two narrow staircases leading to the street. It would be impossible for everyone to get out quickly.

    City officials had reported these unsafe conditions, but Blanck and Harris did nothing.

Bettmann/Getty Images (Shirtwaist); Courtesy Cornell Kheel Center (Max Blanck & Isaac Harris); Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo (Sweatshop)

The Shirtwaist Kings (left)
The woman in the photo above is wearing a shirtwaist. These women’s blouses were as popular as jeans are today. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris—the owners of Triangle—were known as the Shirtwaist Kings.

 

Sweatshop Workers (right)
In the early 1900s, many teen girls and young women had to help earn money for their families. They often worked long hours for little pay in clothing factories called sweatshops.

Frantic Workers 

    At about 4:45 p.m. on March 25, Katie was putting on her coat and hat. She couldn’t wait to leave the noisy factory and get home. But at that very moment, a bin of fabric on another floor burst into flames. 

    Instantly, the flames spread to the tables. Frantic workers threw buckets of water. The water did nothing to stop the blaze. 

    The fire kept growing. And within minutes, Katie heard the screams.

    She looked for her sister, Rose, but could not find her. Choking on smoke, Katie rushed to the window. She stuck her head out to breathe in fresh air. “Fire!” she shouted.

    There had never been a fire drill at Triangle. So no one knew what to do. Katie rushed to one of the two staircases. When she got to the door, it was locked.

    Precious seconds ticked by. And the giant fire only grew.

    At about 4:45 p.m. on March 25, Katie was putting on her coat and hat. She was ready to go home. But at that moment, a bin of fabric on another floor burst into flames.

The flames spread to the tables. Frantic workers threw buckets of water. The water did not stop the blaze. The fire kept growing. And soon Katie heard screams.

She looked for Rose but could not find her. Choking on smoke, Katie rushed to the window. She stuck her head out to breathe in fresh air. “Fire!” she shouted.

There had never been a fire drill at Triangle. No one knew what to do. Katie rushed to one of the two staircases. But the door was locked.

Precious seconds went by. The fire grew.

    At about 4:45 p.m. on March 25, Katie was putting on her coat and hat. She looked forward to leaving the noisy factory and getting home. But at that very moment, a bin of fabric on another floor burst into flames.

    Instantly, the flames spread to the tables. Frantic workers threw buckets of water, but the water had no effect.

    The fire kept growing. And within minutes, Katie heard the screams.

    She looked for her sister, Rose, but couldn’t find her. Choking on smoke, Katie rushed to the window and stuck her head out to breathe in fresh air. “Fire!” she shouted.

    There had never been a fire drill at Triangle, so nobody knew what to do. Katie rushed to one of the two staircases. When she got to the door, it was locked.

    Precious seconds ticked by, and the enormous fire continued growing.

The Granger Collection, New York/The Granger Collection

The Destruction
This photograph shows the inside of the Triangle factory after the fire. It destroyed all three floors of the factory and killed 146 people.

Trapped in the Blaze

    Those inside Triangle had only seconds to make life-or-death decisions. Many chose to jump from the windows rather than die in the fire. It was a deadly 95-foot fall to the sidewalk.

    But Katie saw one last chance: the elevator. 

    During a fire, heat can damage elevators. Passengers can get trapped. At the time, elevators had to be operated by people. Elevator operator Joseph Zito knew the risks. But he wanted to save as many workers as he could. He took the elevator up and down, again and again. With each trip, he did not know if he would survive.

    This time, Katie joined a group of workers pushing their way inside the elevator. But Katie couldn’t fit. As the elevator left, she knew it wouldn’t come back. The fire was now too strong. 

    So she dove.

    Reaching out, Katie grabbed the cable that ran up through the elevator car. She landed on the heads of the workers inside and rode to safety.

    Those inside Triangle had only seconds to make life-or-death decisions. Many chose to jump from the windows rather than die in the fire. It was a deadly 95-foot fall to the sidewalk.

But Katie saw one last chance: the elevator.

During a fire, heat can damage elevators. Passengers can get trapped. At the time, elevators had to be operated by people. Elevator operator Joseph Zito knew the risks. But he wanted to help the workers. He took the elevator up and down, again and again. Each time, he knew he might die.

Katie tried to get inside the elevator. But she couldn’t fit. This time, she knew the elevator wouldn’t come back. The fire was now too strong.

So she dove.

Katie grabbed the cable that ran up through the elevator car. She landed on the heads of the workers inside.

    Those inside Triangle had only seconds to make life-or-death decisions. Many chose to jump from the windows—a deadly 95-foot drop—rather than die in the fire.

    But Katie saw one final chance: the elevator.

    During a fire, heat can damage elevators and cause passengers to become trapped. At the time, elevators had to be operated by people. Elevator operator Joseph Zito was aware of the risks, but he was determined to rescue as many workers as possible. He took the elevator up and down, again and again. With each trip, he did not know if he would survive.

    This time, Katie joined a group of workers pushing their way inside the elevator. But Katie couldn’t fit. As the elevator descended, she knew it wouldn’t come back. The fire was now too powerful.

    So she dove.

    Reaching out, Katie grabbed the cable that ran up through the elevator car. She landed on the heads of the workers inside and rode to safety.

Lasting Change

    The Triangle fire burned through the factory in 18 minutes and killed 146 people. Most of them were teenage girls and young women. Nearly all of them were immigrants. 

    Katie was lucky. Diving into that elevator saved her life. But sadly, Rose did not survive. 

    As news of the fire spread across New York, people were outraged. How many workers would still be alive if the door hadn’t been locked? If the owners had held fire drills?

    Blanck and Harris were never found guilty of any crime. But because of the Triangle factory fire, laws were passed to make factories and offices safer. People fought to protect workers and give them basic rights.

    For the survivors of Triangle, life was never the same. But many went on to live full lives—including Katie. She married and had a son. And she lived to see how the awful events of March 25, 1911, helped create lasting change in America. 

The Triangle fire burned through the factory in 18 minutes. It killed 146 people. Most of them were teen girls and young women. Nearly all were immigrants.


Katie was lucky. Diving into that elevator saved her life. Sadly, Rose did not survive.

News of the fire spread. People were outraged. How many workers would still be alive if the door hadn’t been locked? If the owners had held fire drills?

Blanck and Harris were not found guilty of any crime. But because of the fire, laws were passed to make factories and offices safer. People fought for workers’ rights.

The survivors would never forget the fire. But many went on to live full lives. Katie got married. She had a son. And she lived to see how the fire led to better lives for workers.

    The Triangle fire burned through the factory in 18 minutes and killed 146 people. Most of the victims were teenage girls and young women, and nearly all were immigrants.

    Diving into that elevator saved Katie’s life—but sadly, Rose did not survive.

    News of the fire spread across New York, and people were outraged. How many workers would still be alive if the door hadn’t been locked—or if the factory owners had bothered to hold fire drills?

    Blanck and Harris were never convicted of any crime. But because of the Triangle factory fire, laws were passed to make factories and offices safer. People fought to protect workers and give them basic rights.

    For the survivors of Triangle, life was never the same. Still, many went on to live full lives—including Katie, who married and had a son. Katie also lived to see how the tragic events of March 25, 1911, helped create lasting change in America. 

Background Builder

ACTIVITY: 
Finding text evidence

You’ve just read “Out of the Flames”. Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer, or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “Out of the Flames”. Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer, or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “Out of the Flames”. Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer, or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

How did Katie’s family feel about coming to America?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Place of Hope.”

Answer: Katie's family saw America as a place where hard work could get them ahead.

How did Katie’s family feel about coming to America?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Place of Hope.”

Answer: Katie's family saw America as a place where hard work could get them ahead.

How did Katie’s family feel about coming to America?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Place of Hope.”

Answer: Katie's family saw America as a place where hard work could get them ahead.

How much did Katie work, and what did she earn? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Triangle Waist Company.”

How much did Katie work, and what did she earn? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Triangle Waist Company.”

How much did Katie work, and what did she earn? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Triangle Waist Company.”

What did factory bosses do that made workers’ lives difficult? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Triangle Waist Company.”

What did factory bosses do that made workers’ lives difficult? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Triangle Waist Company.”

What did factory bosses do that made workers’ lives difficult? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Triangle Waist Company.”

Who died in the Triangle factory fire? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Lasting Change.”

Who died in the Triangle factory fire? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Lasting Change.”

Who died in the Triangle factory fire? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Lasting Change.”

Think About It! What do your answers tell you about the people who worked in sweatshops?

Think About It! What do your answers tell you about the people who worked in sweatshops?

Think About It! What do your answers tell you about the people who worked in sweatshops?

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