On March 25, 1911, mere minutes before closing time, a fire broke out in a garment factory, just off of Washington Square.
While the building was equipped with two fire escapes, one only opened inward and the other was locked from the outside to prevent theft. Of the four elevators, only one was operational. Fire sprinkler systems were available, but the owners avoided their installation in order to continue the practice of secretly starting their own off-hours factory fires to commit insurance fraud. With corrupt and unscrupulous owners such as these, a long history of greedy and irresponsible behavior in their past, the underpaid, exploited workers, mostly desperate and undocumented immigrant young women, stood little chance of survival.
Of the 500 employees, 145 died tragically, trapped inside the inferno, many jumping to their death from the 9th floor, rather than being burned alive.
Despite public outrage, the owners got off virtually scot-free, eventually paying the victims’ families a mere $75 per life lost, and continuing most of their outrageous, life-threatening business practices for years to come.
The most horrifying of the realities surrounding this incident is how many of these atrocities still exist today. Garment factories, and many other industries, in CA and NY, especially, still employ many of the same terror tactics to keep their employees powerless to protect themselves. Undocumented immigrants still dominate America’s lowest level work force, permitting them to fall through the cracks of labor law protection. Large cities are frequently understaffed and too overworked to make the necessary inspections, ensuring that every workplace is properly constructed and maintained to meet regulations for the safety of their employees. And when it is possible, very often city government corruption allows for criminal business owners to find ways around the requirements. On top of all of that, we hear almost weekly of another fire ravaging a community, taking lives, robbing people of their homes, possessions, workplaces and loved ones.
The 2017 AIA Statement of Values includes standing for equity and human rights. It includes standing for architecture that strengthens our communities. It includes speaking up to policymakers to protect the Health, Safety and Welfare of the public.
AIA NJ continues to work, lending expertise and information, writing white papers and influencing legislation, to do our part to protect society from potential future tragedies. Look for upcoming reports on our current efforts and actions on behalf of all of our members, or better yet, join a committee and lend your voice to the call! We invite you, we challenge you, to be a part of the solution.