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Monday Marks Anniversary Of 2 Devastating New York City Fires

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Monday marked a somber anniversary of two of the deadliest and most devastating fires in New York City history, which happened 79 years apart.

March 25 was the date of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which killed 146 people and helped galvanize the U.S. labor movement in 1911. It was also the date of the arson fire that killed 87 people at Happy Land, an unlicensed social club in the Bronx.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory was located in a still-standing building at Green Street and Washington Place, a short distance east of Washington Square Park. The fire broke out on the eighth floor of the building at 4:45 p.m. – just 15 minutes before closing time, CBS New York's Jesse Zanger recalled in a 2011 article.

According to an account in the New York Times, Max Rother and Max Burnstein were in the room when the fire broke out in the loft-like space. The two hurled pails of water on the fire, but were too late. The clothesline hanging above the workers had lit up, and started raining burning clothes down on them. The scraps on the floor and in the baskets caught right away. The fire spread wide almost immediately.

Panicked workers bolted for the exits. Initially, some managed to escape into the elevator. But it was so packed it failed immediately, making just one trip down to street level before conking out. One worker – 20-year-old Cecilia Walker – jumped to the elevator cable and slid down from the 8th floor. She suffered burns on her hands and bruises. Another man – Samuel Levine – told the Times he was sliding down the cables when the bodies of six girls came hurtling past him. One of the bodies thudded into him, and he tumbled from the cables. He survived only because he landed on the body of one of the dead girls.

Meanwhile, a flimsy fire escape on the side of the building quickly buckled under the weight of escapees and fell away. As the fast-moving blaze raged, young workers plunged from the sky in an awful rain -- many of them on fire.

It was all over in just 30 minutes.

Ultimately, at least 120 of the garment workers – many of them recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women under the age of 20 – were either burned alive or jumped to their deaths. Fifty bodies were found immolated on the 9th floor, while the street outside was a scene of unparalleled carnage.

The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, survived the fire by running up to the roof of the building, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation recalled. They were charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter for locking the door and trapping the victims, but were ultimately acquitted.

The blaze was a turning point in 20th century American history. It was a pivotal moment in the creation of the labor movement. Some think it ultimately paved the way to FDR's New Deal. It also led to numerous changes in fire safety and building codes.

On the 79th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, another deadly fire broke out under much different circumstances in the East Tremont section of the Bronx. But as in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, the 87 people who died found themselves trapped in the building.

Happy Land Fire
Eighty-seven people died at the Happy Land social club in the Bronx on March 25, 1990. (Credit: CBS 2)

Happy Land was located at 1959 Southern Blvd., near East Tremont Avenue. The nightclub was operating illegally after having been ordered closed by the city for building and fire code violations, and a single staircase was the only point of egress.

The fire broke just after 3 a.m. that Sunday in 1990, when it was packed with young men and women – largely recent immigrants from Honduras, Ecuador and other Latin American countries, according to published reports.

Earlier that evening, Julio Gonzalez had been kicked out of the club by the bouncer after getting into an argument with his ex-girlfriend – nightclub ticket taker Lydia Feliciano, according to published reports. He walked to a gas station nearby and returned to the nightclub with a container full of gasoline, which he poured onto the staircase and ignited.

Feliciano survived the fire, but 87 people – 61 men and 26 women, did not. Most of them were under 25 years old, according to published reports.

Victims trying their hardest to escape the flames ended up piled up in a corner alongside the dance floor, reports said. They were soon asphyxiated or burned to death.

Gonzalez was convicted of 87 counts each or murder and arson in 1991, and was sentenced to 25 years to life for every count.

Accounts at the time pointed out that the Happy Land fire was the deadliest blaze in New York City since the Triangle Shirtwaist fire 79 years earlier to the day.

The remains of the Happy Land club were demolished after the fire. The building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory is now owned by NYU.

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