New York City is haunted, for sure, any good paranormal researcher will tell you. And you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has lived here for any decent amount of time who doesn’t have a story—or two. Everything from creaking woodwork in the dead of night to talking ghosts that walk out of paintings run the gamut in old NYC. But sometimes what is equally haunting are events that transpired that could cause such possible apparitions or poltergeists.
March 25th, 1911 was on a Saturday. Workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were finishing up a day’s work when a fire broke out at approximately 4:40 pm, killing 146 workers. 125 of them were girls and women and, the majority of them were between the ages of 13 and 23. The entire event took less half an hour.
The fire broke out on the eighth floor and quickly spread to the ninth and tenth floors. No one knew exactly what caused the fire. Some speculated it was a poorly extinguished cigarette butt, or faulty machinery such as a sewing machine. The in-house switch board operator on the eighth floor quickly tried to contact the ninth and tenth floors once the workers began crying “FIRE!” The message only got through to the tenth floor. Workers on the ninth floor were the last to learn of the blaze and blindsided as flames revealed themselves up through the floor and staircase with devasting speed.
The blaze grew to be magnanimous as it fed on scraps of cotton-made fabric used in the composition of the shirtwaist garments. This material was regularly strewn everywhere, according to survivors. The fire would soak up the rags on the wood floor as well as the material that hung overhead. Add to that the stock of machine oil on the premises which also caught fire. To give you an example of how much material the fire had to build on; a rag dealer would generally come and collect the scraps of fabric about every two months. The last time before the fire was in January when more than 2000 lbs. were collected.
Exits from the eighth floor were quickly caught in flames. Only one worker from the eighth floor was believed to have survived. The tenth floor housed clerical offices, the shipping department, as well as the owner’s offices. Everyone on the tenth floor was able to escape. Upon receiving the warning call, they ran to the roof and climbed onto the roof of the adjacent building of the New York University Law School.
The rows of sewing machines were very tightly cramped together. The women often complained about it. When the fire broke out, the limited space made it difficult for many of the workers to bolt from the scene—knocking into the heavy iron machines, as well as each other. Workers attempted escape through the elevators. Many women who couldn’t get on the already overcrowded cars, attempted to slide down the cables and fell to their deaths on top of the cages, spraying blood on those they sweated with just a few hours earlier. Soon the elevators could no longer rise because of the amount of bodies on top of them. All the staircases were lined with rows of rageful flames.
Survivors reported that many other exits were locked by the owners to prevent theft and union organizers from being able to meet with the workers. Now with all avenues to survival diminished, the women rushed to the windows. With flames the size of ocean waves taking bites at their backs, they would have no where to go but out.
Onlookers thought the owners were throwing bundles of cloth out of the windows--in an attempt to save valuable merchandise. With closer inspection they realized with horror it was young women that were coming out of the factory windows. They would come in quick succession. Never a long gap between jumps. Sometimes in twos, threes, and even five at once. Sometimes holding hands or clinging to each other’s necks. More than six bodies would hit the ground before the first fire engine would hit the scene. By the time more engines arrived the workers, who were mostly female, were jumping at a frenetic and frenzied pace. Firemen rushed to get nets in place. But in many instances the women went right through them, falling with a force equaling 11,000 pounds. Sometimes they would miss them entirely. Firemen had trouble getting equipment close enough to the building because of the bodies strewn in front. As a result, the full extent of their ladders fell a story or two short of the eighth floor.
In all, 63 bodies would come crashing to the ground. All who jumped died. A gruesome site for witnesses as well as police and firefighters. The entire event took 18 minutes. Equally disturbing and horrific was the site inside. Dozens of charred bodies were found huddled together in a coat room. 20 more were found melted against a locked door and two dozen more bodies were found mangled and burned on top of an elevator. Several skeletons of women were found bent over sewing machines at their work stations.
All the workers who died that day were immigrants. By all accounts none of them spoke more than a word or two of English. The ironic part was that if the fire had broken out just 10 or 15 minutes later, many if not all might have been spared. It was very close to quitting time.
Today the building still stands. Tenants of the building, which is now owned by New York University, sometimes report of strange smells, such as burning flesh or smoke. As well as feelings of a presence near by or watching them. One witness claims that a young disheveled woman walked past her just outside of the building late one night as she was leaving. She said the girl was mumbling incoherently and looked afraid. Before the young lady turned the corner of the building, the witness noticed what looked to be smoke coming off of the top of her head. Concerned, she ran around the corner of the building to tell the woman. When she hit the corner, which was no more than 7 or eight feet away, the street was completely empty and the young lady was nowhere to be found.
Carson, Kerry, D., & Pence, Lanier, Patricia., All Who Jumped Died. Emerald Insight. www.emeraldinsight.com. 2014.