It was 4:30 PM on a warm Saturday New York afternoon, the end of another six-day work week – March 25, 1911 to be exact. Hundreds of women and girls in the top floors of the Asch Building were looking forward to leaving their hot, dusty little shirtwaist factory to finally get the rest and fresh air that they so desperately needed, but so eagerly sacrificed for employment. Making shirtwaists –blouses with tight waists and puffy sleeves – was a difficult job for an immigrant to find. Yet the owners of such factories eagerly hired as many as they could squeeze into their production lines, assuming that the immigrants would overlook the low pay and deplorable work conditions.
By 4:40, just over half of the workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had collected their belongings and exited the factory floors. It took only a moment for the patient shuffling toward the stairway to turn into a panicked rush. Someone had yelled, “Fire!” and while few spoke English, enough could understand or spotted the fire almost immediately. The still-crowded floors could not be cleared as fast as the fire raced through the dirty work areas. The regular exits were crowded with people clamoring over one another, the emergency exits had been locked to prevent theft, and for many, that left one choice – jumping out of a window. Some did finally make it to the fire escape, but it collapsed and sent twenty girls to their deaths. Out of 275 workers left in the building at that time, 146 would die of burns, smoke inhalation, or falling to the sidewalks below. This would take place in a mere eighteen minutes. Firefighters looked helplessly as the fire raged; their ladders and hoses could not reach past the 6th floor, the building’s fire hoses were nonoperational, and falling bodies simply broke through their life nets. For both the victims and responders, that eighteen minutes would seem an eternity.
20 year-old George LeWitt was at the time studying in the law library of New York University. An aspiring law student born in New York to Russian Jewish immigrants, LeWitt grew up in Hartford and was a graduate of Hartford Public High School. His professor first saw the fire and a group of terrified women on the roof that the library overlooked next door. He shouted to the students, and LeWitt and his classmates located ladders that had been left recently by painters and positioned them between the windows of the library and the roof of the Asch Building. The rescued approximately 69 workers from the 10th floor, the last one an unconscious young girl who they dragged up the ladder to safety. Only one employee from the 10th floor perished, a stark contrast to the carnage on the 8th and 9th floors. In 1922, LeWitt moved to New Britain and spent the next 35 years working as an attorney, serving in civic affairs, and advocating for the Jewish community. He was also a pioneer motion picture operator around the state, his properties including the Russwin Lyceum and Arch Street Theaters in New Britain, the Liberty Theater in Hartford, the Strand Theaters in Old Lyme and Plainville, and the Berlin Drive-In. New Britain-raised artist Sol LeWitt, founding member of the Minimal and Conceptual art movements, was his nephew. George LeWitt hardly spoke of the events he was part of on March 25, 1911 or the fact that he had a direct hand in saving the lives of so many people, in an event that would become instrumental in the cause of workplace health and safety.