An article in the New York Times about seven children killed in a fire in Brooklyn last March (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/23/nyregion/funerals-for-7-victims-of-brooklyn-fire.html) reminded me of the deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory 105 years ago. The Triangle fire lasted only half an hour, from the initial spark to final burning embers but in the end, 146 perished.
Near closing time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire erupted on the eighth floor in a bin of scrap materials and fabrics. A steady flow of wind rushed through the elevator shafts from the street and fed the flames. Smoke began its way upward to the ninth floor. Garment workers, seamstresses, mostly women and young girls, raced to the exit door on Washington Place. It was locked. Later, some claimed the doors were kept locked so the girls didn’t steal the fabrics. Within minutes the eighth and ninth floors were raging infernos.
Forensic science, often called forensics, is the application of science to the legal system. This may be in relation to a crime or a civil action. The word itself is derived from the Latin for?nsis, meaning “of or before the forum.” In Roman times, criminals would present their case before a group of individuals in the Forum.
Today, with the preponderance of CSI programs and movies, forensics is a household word. Law enforcement and crime-lab teams, however, view these programs as a hindrance since it colors the public’s (and the jury’s) view of the real work involved.
In 1911, fire forensics (in fact, all forensics) was in its infancy. In my book, The Triangle Murders, Cormac Mead searched the two destroyed floors at the Triangle factory for evidence that would prove his wife was murdered. If he suspected arson, what would he have been looking for? Probably things similar to what fire investigators look for today when investigating fires: evidence of accelerants, igniters, pieces of a bomb and explosive residues (if an explosion is suspected), point of origin, and point of entry and exit of the arsonist (if arson is suspected.) Interestingly, unlike crime suspects who are innocent until proven guilty, fires are considered suspicious until proven otherwise.
Photo: An officer stands at the Asch Building’s 9th floor window after the Triangle fire. Sewing machines, drive shafts, and other wreckage of the Triangle factory fire are piled in the center of the blaze-scoured room. (Photographer: Brown Brothers, 1911, Copyright: Kheel Center, Cornell University, http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/.)