Ultimately, they had no choice except for how they would perish: burn or leap to death.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers were trapped on March 25, 1911. HBO's excellent "Triangle: Remembering the Fire" marks the centennial with a 40-minute documentary Monday, March 21.
This tragedy, New York's worst workplace disaster until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was the catalyst for changing labor laws and establishing fire safety standards.
"There were no fire escapes," says Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films and the movie's executive producer. "No one had sprinklers. It was all new. They always put a stop sign up after someone gets killed on the corner. We always learn too late, and we learn for the next generation."
Nevins is not only the force behind the film, but her grandmother's youngest sister, Celia Gitlin, was among the 146 who died in the fire. Most were immigrant women and teenage girls.
Nevins hadn't realized the familial connection until HBO's 2009 documentary, "Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags." Filmmakers Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson made both documentaries.
Though other victims' descendants are in the film, Nevins is not among them. In an interview, she talks about her great-aunt. Like so many who died that Saturday afternoon, Gitlin, 17, was a recent emigre. In the United States for six months, she spoke no English, and her death certificate states that she died of a broken skull; she jumped from the blazing building.
"It wasn't just so I must remember my family," Nevins says. "These women really changed history. Women had led the labor movement."
The movement was a reaction to overcrowded factories and no protections for workers. The Triangle factory was one of the first of its kind; it was in a new skyscraper on the edge of Washington Square Park. Before this, garment workers usually sewed from tenements on the Lower East Side.
This was a large, airy building, though workers were crammed into loft spaces. It was also significant because of what Triangle made 'd0 shirtwaists, blouses for women, freeing them from dresses.
The factory owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were also immigrants. They made millions from this new fashion.
To make these millions, though, meant people worked very long days, six days a week, for very little money. Such conditions led to the general strike of 1909, when New York pretty much came to a halt, and police officers beat young female factory workers who dared protest.
To put their bravery in perspective, remember that women did not yet have the vote. Some factories were unionized after that strike, but not Triangle. Grinding work continued as always, until 4:10 p.m. on March 25.
"Investigators believe it was started by a discarded cigarette," Tovah Feldshuh narrates. "Highly flammable stacks of fabric and paper patterns caused the fire to spread quickly across the floor. The workers panicked and started running for the exits all at once. They had never had fire drills. There was no plan. Nobody knew what to do."
Soon the factory was engulfed. Stairways weren't wide enough, doors opened in instead of the safer out. The law did not require sprinklers.
Some people on the 10th floor scrambled to the roof, where a law professor and students from adjacent New York University (which has a building on the site of the Triangle factory) rescued some 70 people.
The fire department arrived just two minutes after the first alarm was sounded. Their ladders reached only to the sixth floor; the fire started on the eighth.
One of the day's heroes was Joseph Zito, an elevator operator, who continued to bring the lift to the fire as frantic workers pushed in.
"He was going into the fire to save those people that he knew would die if he wasn't able to get back up there," his great-great-grandson, Dennis Clancey, says in the film. "He saved over 100 people that day."
Eventually, workers threw themselves into the elevator shaft. Others leapt from windows. In 18 minutes, it was over.
Susan Harris' grandfather was factory co-owner Blanck, who died six years before she was born. Harris has clearly ruminated about the tragedy and is emotionally open during an interview. Her family did not talk about the fire.
"I imagine their reason was it was so incredibly painful," she says.
Harris has created art from shirtwaists onto which she embroidered the victims' names, which she is giving to the New York City Fire Museum. "To me it is like a prayer flag," she says.
Though this fire is so integral to labor and New York history, Nevins and Harris acknowledge people must be reminded that awful work conditions persist.
"There needs to be some type of government protection, some oversight that will come in and inspect (factories)," Harris says, "and make sure that everything is very safe for them."