THIS DOOR TO REMAIN UNLOCKED DURING BUSINESS HOURS. Ever notice this puzzling placard above the door as you’re leaving a commercial building? There’s a story behind it dating back almost exactly a century to this day, though it’s not a very happy one.
In the early twentieth century, health and safety codes were casually enforced where they existed at all. Building owners were under scant obligation to ensure public safety on their own premises, and in large cities, buildings were routinely overcrowded and unsanitary. But the widespread lack of even the most basic fire safety measures would soon prove the deadliest bane of all.
In New York City, on March 25, 1911, a fire started just before quitting time on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, an overcrowded sewing loft mainly employing young immigrant women. Fed by cutting scraps littering the floor, the blaze quickly spread to the stories above, with nothing more than 27 fire pails available to fight it with. Most of the workers on the eighth and tenth floors managed to escape, but those on the ninth floor, finding one exit blocked by fire, rushed to the other only to find it locked from outside.
In desperation, a few people made it onto the fire escape before it collapsed under their weight. With the entire ninth floor now in flames, the majority of women were driven to the windows where, one by one, they jumped to their deaths before horrified onlookers on the sidewalk. In the span of twenty minutes, 146 people perished, most of them immigrant girls in their teens and early twenties.
The public’s anguish at this needless tragedy quickly turned to outrage. It was alleged that the factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had intentionally locked the exit door to keep the women at their sewing machines, though this was never proven. But there was no doubt that the ninth floor was overcrowded, with as little as 18 inches of aisle leading between the sewing tables to the unmarked exits. In any case, the exit doors opened inward, making them impossible to open once the force of a panicked crowd had pushed against them.
Perhaps most frightening of all, there was nothing unusual about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. There were countless workplaces just like it across the nation.
The following year, a report on the fire by the New York Factory Investigating Commission finally spurred regulations setting occupancy limits in commercial buildings, and requiring basic fire safety features such as adequate fire escapes and clearly-marked exits. The report further noted, “The necessity for clear and unobstructed passageways to exits should be absolutely insisted upon...”
Blanck and Harris were tried for manslaughter and acquitted, largely because the prosecution could not prove they had knowledge of the locked exit. In twenty-three subsequent civil suits, they were ordered to pay the families of the victims an average of 75 dollars each.
The heartbreaking lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and, alas, a number of even deadlier fires since, have formed the hard-won foundations of our modern fire safety codes. Today, when we go to a mall or to the movies, we take it for granted that we’ll find unobstructed, clearly marked exits and outward-opening doors with panic bars. We know we’ll find emergency lighting, diagrams showing us where the exits are, and signs stating just how many people the owners can pack in there with us.
And, yes, we’ll find that cryptic message posted just inside the entrance: THIS DOOR TO REMAIN UNLOCKED DURING BUSINESS HOURS.
It’s just a flimsy little sign, but it came at a terrible price.