Stephen Nessen, Reporter, WNYC News
Stephen Nessen reports for the WNYC Newsroom and can often be heard live on Morning Edition.
When the fire broke out on the eighth floor at the Triangle Waist Company Joseph Zito continued doing his job. The 27-year-old Italian immigrant with a solid jaw and dark features kept the elevator running.
It was about 4:30 p.m. Nearly quitting time.
The fire quickly spread from the eighth floor, igniting the over 2,000 pounds of scrap fabric on the factory floor and sending the employees — mostly young women, Jewish and Italian immigrants — scrambling for the exits. Flames spread to the ninth floor where small barrels of oil used for lubricating the sewing machines and oil soaked floor boards proved perfect fire starters.
Adding to the tragic confusion, the young workers on that floor found themselves locked in. The company regularly locked the ninth floor exits, particularly around that time, so they could be sure none of the girls were stealing fabric or thread on their way home.
Zito had only been working in the building for about six months. He lived just around the corner on MacDougal Street and had a young wife and small child.
As smoke filled the building, the young elevator operator made two trips to the 10th floor, filling his elevator with as many people escaping from the flames as he could fit in the 6-by-9-foot elevator. But soon conditions deteriorated and he could only make it up to the ninth floor, and eventually only the eight floor. There were more workers than the elevator could hold, and eventually the smoke made it hard to see anything.
"The young women were desperate to get in. They were using their huge shears to fight their way in, and he was stabbed a number of times by these shears. He continued to make trips as long as he could," said Patrick Clancey, Zito’s great-great grandson, who, along with other members of his family, have tirelessly researched the details of Zito’s life and his role in the Triangle Waist Company fire. (LISTEN to Clancey discuss Zito, audio top of page)
Zito reportedly told the New York Times that day that they "pulled my hair, dived on top of me, climbed on the roof, and packed themselves in on top of each other. The car is built for 10 passengers. I carried 40 on the last trip down."
A fabric cutting knife that was found at the Triangle Waist Company factory. The knife is now at the Kheel Center at Cornell University (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)
Zito told a Chicago Tribune reporter at the time that girls fainted on the way down and had to be dragged out: "There were several men too who crowded their way into the car in spite of the girls." Zito said.
As the elevator crept down, Zito heard a sickening thump. Girls had been crowding the open shaft waiting for the elevator to return, but the fire and panic propelled them forward. Bodies piled up and blood leaked through the elevator as Zito made his final trip down.
But then Zito heard the elevator cables snap. Clancey said Zito claimed he'd found there were 19 bodies on top of the elevator. Reports at the time range from 25 to 50 bodies.
The fire department arrived quickly, but found their ladders only reached the sixth floor. They watched helplessly as girls jumped out of the window. They tried placing safety nets, but the bodies were falling too fast, and ripped through the nets, hardly slowing their fall, according to Curtis Lyon, the director of the Kheel Center at Cornell University’s school of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Many of the girls had just gotten paid, and their money envelopes had been torn to shreds. Coins mixed with blood dropped on Zito as he waited for rescue at the bottom of the elevator shaft.
A firefighter later found Zito in the basement with a broken leg, suffering from smoke injuries and nearly drowned from the firefighter's water that had begun rising at the bottom.
The New York Times reported that Zito had saved 100 girls that day.
The fire only lasted about 18 minutes but resulted in the deaths of 146 people.
Joseph Zito survived that day, but Clancey said he was never same again. A Red Cross report at the time claimed his health was seriously compromised from the fire and that his wife, pregnant at the time, suffered a miscarriage. The Charity Organization Society decided to award him $400 for his losses and the Red Cross reported that by the following February he was well enough to work again.
In a later lawsuit, many Triangle Company workers were bribed to testify that working conditions were safe, but Zito’s family said he refused: "It was another sense of pride, that he was incorruptible, he wasn't willing to change his story for money," Clancey said recently.
After the fire, family research traced Zito to Ohio, where he was a railroad worker, but was eventually laid off, returned to New Jersey, remarried with six children.
On October 25, 1932, Jersey Observer's headline read, "Saved 100 From Death, Dies Penniless." It was reported that Zito, then 48-years old, had died. He’d been living in New Jersey for the previous 10 years.
He was given a ceremonious Masonic burial in a group plot at New York Bay and Bay View Cemetery.
Zito’s great-great grandchildren, Patrick Clancey, 31 and his brother Dennis, 28, are decorated war veterans. Patrick was awarded two Bronze Stars, for "exceptionally meritorious service" in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Dennis was awarded one for his service in Iraq.
When asked if he thinks bravery runs in the family, Patrick said he and his brother never talked about it: "You don't have time to think about it. You just do what's right. You do what you need to do in that moment. I think, largely, he [Zito] did the same. He was in a position to help. He was in a position to make a difference, and it didn't matter, the peril he placed himself in. There's no expectation that we do these things. When placed in situations people do what they think is right. And that’s what he did."
Joesph Zito on the cover of The Post-Standard (Courtesy of Jane Fazio-Villeda)