On the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, just as the workday ended, a fire flared up in a scrap bin under one of the cutters' tables on the eighth floor, likely caused by the disposal of an unextinguished match or cigarette butt. Although smoking was banned in the factory, cutters were known to sneak cigarettes, exhaling the smoke through their lapels to avoid detection. No accusation of arson was made in this specific case, however, as both owners of the factory were in attendance and had invited their children to the factory on that afternoon.
A bookkeeper on the eighth floor warned employees on the tenth floor via telephone, but there was no audible alarm and no way to contact staff on the ninth floor. The first warning of the fire on the ninth floor arrived at the same time as the fire itself. The floor had a number of exits - two freight elevators, a fire escape, and stairways down to Greene Street and Washington Square - but flames prevented workers from descending the Greene Street stairway and the door to the Washington Square stairway was locked. Dozens of employees escaped the fire by going up the Greene Street stairway to the roof. Other survivors were able to jam themselves into the elevators while they still operated.
Within three minutes, the Greene Street stairway became unusable in either direction. Terrified employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, a flimsy and poorly-anchored iron structure which may have been broken before the fire but in any event soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling victims onto the concrete pavement over a hundred feet below.
Much to the horror of the large crowd of bystanders gathered on the street, sixty-two persons died by jumping or falling from the ninth floor. Socialist Louis Waldman, later a New York state assemblyman, described the grim scene in his memoirs published in 1944:
“One Saturday afternoon in March of that year — March 25, to be precise — I was sitting at one of the reading tables in the old Astor Library... It was a raw, unpleasant day and the comfortable reading room seemed a delightful place to spend the remaining few hours until the library closed. I was deeply engrossed in my book when I became aware of fire engines racing past the building. By this time I was sufficiently Americanized to be fascinated by the sound of fire engines. Along with several others in the library, I ran out to see what was happening, and followed crowds of people to the scene of the fire.
A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.
Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.
The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines."
The remainder waited until smoke and fire overcame them. The fire department arrived quickly but was unable to stop the flames, as there were no ladders available that could reach beyond the sixth floor. The fallen bodies and falling victims also made it difficult for the fire department to reach the building.
The death toll was anywhere from 141 to 146 people. Six victims were never identified. Most victims died of burns, asphyxiation, blunt impact injuries, or a combination of the three.
It is often stated that most or all of the dead were women, but almost thirty of the victims were men. Eyewitnesses reported seeing men and women jumping out of the windows; the first jumper was a man, and another man was seen kissing a young woman at the window before they both jumped to their deaths.