Where Do You Suppose Government Regulations Came From?

With nearly every politician of whatever stripe--Republican, Democratic, independent, conservative, liberal--clammoring for an end to needless, intrusive, bureaucratic regulation, did you ever wonder where all these awful and invasive rules came from?

Probably from an accumulation of events like this one.

The fire began around 4:30 in the afternoon of March 25, 1911, a Saturday. Apparently touched off in piles of scrap material, the flames quickly engulfed the ninth and tenth floors. Within minutes the Triangle Waist Company, New York City's leading manufacturer of popular shirtwaist blouses, was ablaze.

The company's nearly. 500 employees, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, were preparing to leave for the day. "I was just fixing my hair and putting on my coat," Pauline Cuoio Pepe later recalled. As smoke and heat filled the hallways, panicked employees rushed to escape. "There were about 100 people right next to the door," Mrs. Pepe said, "but it was closed." (New York Times, March 25, 1986, p. 2b.) In fact, most of the exits were locked, an attempt, investigators alleged afterward, to prevent workers from pilfering the company's merchandise. Many did manage to scramble onto the sole outside fire escape, but, being overburdened, it immediately collapsed, spewing bodies onto the pavement many flights down. The malfunction of the building's only two elevators left everyone else trapped.

Although fire engines arrived quickly, their ladders extended only to the sixth floor. Their clothes and hair burning, the desperate victims started jumping from windows and ledges to their deaths on the sidewalks below as firemen watched helplessly. The New York Times captured the horror of the scene:

Then one poor little creature jumped. There was a plate glass protection over part of the sidewalk, but she crashed through it, wrecking it and breaking her body into a thousand pieces....Then they all began to drop. The crowd yelled "Don't jump!" but it was jump or be burned.

After half an hour the worst was over: 146 people had died, almost all of them girls and young women 16 to 23 years old.

Considered the worst industrial accident in New York history, the Triangle fire consumed more than young lives: It seared the nation's conscience, caused it to rethink its political philosophy, and helped bring deep and far reaching social and economic reforms.

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