The Important Legacy of the Triangle and Happy Land Fires

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March has a tragic history of fatal fires in the U.S. dating back a century, including two of the worst disasters in New York City history, which occurred on the same date 79 years apart. 

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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, on March 25, 1911. The upper floors of the Lower Manhattan building contained a sweatshop whose doors were locked, forcing many workers to jump to their deaths.

A quarter-century ago, on March 25, 1990, the Happy Land Social Club fire killed 87 in the Bronx. An arsonist trapped partygoers inside after pouring gasoline and lighting two matches at the only exit of the unlicensed nightclub, which had previously been ordered shut down due to building code violations.

As we remember the innocent lives lost, it is crucial that we also remember the lessons learned that have likely helped prevent future tragedies. 

The Triangle and Happy Land fires forever changed our city’s building codes, as well as its health and safety laws, helping to make our homes, workplaces, and public establishments significantly safer. In 2016, New York City documented 48 fire deaths, the lowest number in the Fire Department of the City of New York’s 100 years of recordkeeping. The steady decline in fire deaths over the past decades can be directly traced to new and strengthened safety laws and regulations. 

Landmark labor, building and workplace safety laws were implemented in the decades following the Triangle fire. Among the codes and regulations enacted after that tragedy was the requirement of exit stairwells, fire alarms, extinguishers, hoses and in tall buildings, automatic fire sprinklers.  

The devastating toll at Happy Land is among the reasons for regulations including occupancy limits, exit signs, smoke detectors and sprinkler systems. All of these enhanced safety measures have routinely saved lives and are among the key reasons fires like the Triangle and Happy Land are much less likely to occur in New York City today. 

To ensure fire-related fatalities continue declining, building owners must stay vigilant about installing and maintaining fire safety equipment, such as fire sprinklers systems. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fire sprinkler systems reduce the chance of death by 82 percent and property loss by 68 percent.

Last December, a tragic Oakland, Calif., warehouse fire killed 36 people, many local young artists who resided in the illegally converted 10,000-square-foot warehouse. The incident had striking similarities to the Happy Land Social Club fire, as both lacked a public assembly permit, sprinklers and working emergency exits. 

Today’s fires present new challenges. According to Underwriters Laboratories, modern furnishings and construction materials are manufactured using petroleum and synthetics, fueling fires to burn hotter, more toxic and spread 800 percent faster than fires of just 30 to 40 years ago.

This means fire victims who once had longer to escape a building now have as little as three to four minutes. It is why improving fire prevention awareness and suppression protocols, as well as life-saving measures like sprinklers, are critical.  

As we reflect on the tragic events that helped shape our city and nation’s modern safety laws, they should impart a lesson for property owners to always be vigilant and proactive. After all, the road to implementing life-saving safety enhancements came at a grave price.

Tony Saporito is executive vice president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of New York.