The Triangle Shirtwaist fire’s hero elevator men

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire killed 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women trapped in the Greene Street building’s locked upper floors.

But the death toll on that spring-like afternoon, March 25, 1911, would have been higher if not for the factory’s two passenger elevator operators.

“Jospeh Zito (at right) and Gaspar Mortillalo, the elevator operators, were sitting in their cars waiting for the Triangle closing time when suddenly their bells began ringing wildly,” writes David Von Drehle in his book Triangle.

“In the aftermath, there would be much confusion about which floors the elevators visited and when, but they probably went first to the eighth floor, saved a load of grateful survivors, then headed up to the [tenth] floor.

“Zito estimates that he made two trips to the tenth floor—but when he got there the second time, everyone was gone. The rest of their work was on nine.

“Each elevator was built to hold about a dozen people. On their final runs, the cars carried at least twice that number.

“Between them, Zito and Mortillalo probably rescued 150 people or more—approximately half the total number of survivors.

“‘When I first opened the elevator door on the ninth floor all I could see was a crowd of girls and men with great flames and smoke right behind them,’ Zito said.

“‘When I came to the floor the [last] time, the girls were standing on the window sills with fire all around them.'”

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14 Responses to “The Triangle Shirtwaist fire’s hero elevator men”

  1. Nabe News: March 14 - Bowery Boogie Says:

    […] the heroes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – the elevator operators.  Between the two men, over 150 people were reportedly saved [Ephemeral NY] Tweet Filed […]

  2. Dead Person in Coffin Stuck in Elavator Says:

    […] The Triangle Shirtwaist fire's hero elevator men « Ephemeral New York […]

  3. david bellel Says:

    from my blogsite new york labor history
    To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Cornell’s Kheel Center for Industrial Relations updated its survivor list.
    Thomas Horton is listed as a porter. In an article written about the fire he evidently performed heroically under horrific circumstances. I would suggest he was more than just a porter and if my search of the 1910 census is correct he may have had engineering skills necessary to operate and maintain the building’s elevators. The Thomas Horton above is the only “colored” Horton I found living in New York. He was an assistant engineer in an office building. Born in North Carolina, he would have logically followed the migratory pattern to the north to find better jobs at the time as well as housing in Harlem.
    Below a reference to him in a 1957 American Heritage article

    On the Greene Street side of the Asch building, the freight elevators “ran until they wouldn’t run.” “We were putting in the switch cables till they were overrun with water,” Thomas Horton, the Negro porter recalls. “They stuck. The circuit-breakers were blowing out.”
    As Horton toiled grimly in the basement to keep the motors going, the elevator operators opened their doors at random in the blinding smoke, making desperate guesses as to floor openings. Fire streamed into the shafts, flame bit at the cables, and the girls jumping in suicidal fright jammed the operation of the cars. Nineteen bodies were found later wedged between the car and shaft in one of the Greene Street freight elevator wells.

    h/t to Jane Fazio, Michael Hirsch and Prof Alan Singer

    • Hedy Schenker Says:

      My Grandfather was the Other Elevator operator that was Never really Spoken about. There were two Elevator Operators My Grandfather was Gaspar Mortillalo, EXCEPT that WAS NOT HIS Real name… His real Name was Louis Troiano, He had Just turned 18 at the time. He never Wanted to be Considered a hero, he didn’t want the Publicity… One of these Days I will make his name be known!

  4. annonymous Says:

    There were 4 elevators. Two passenger elevators on the Washington side and two freight elevators on the Greene Street side. It would be terrific if you would make your grandfather’s name known!!! There were many who were looking for and asked about if anyone knew any relatives of “Gaspare Mortillalo” in particular during the 100th anniversary of the fire last year. This is why no one could locate any of his ancestors.

  5. annonymous Says:

    Here is a 1910 census for a Gasper Mortillaro (same spelling as McFarlane’s article)-btw-there is no Italian surname “Mortillalo”-that spelling does appear in some articles-but seems to be misspelled-there is: Mortilanl.Mortillano, Mortillaro) He is listed as living in Manhattan, age 10 and “elevator running” in a “factory” There were 4 elevator operators-maybe he is one of the other men?

    • Michael Hirsch Says:

      He may have been an elevator operator somewhere, but not in the Ashe Building. Mortillaro is listed as being 20 years old in 1910, not 10 years old.

  6. annonymous Says:

    corrections: Mortilano and age 20 (not 10)

  7. annonymous Says:

    Here is the list of witnesses at the Grand Jury that investigated the fire

    • annonymous Says:

      PS There is a Louis Tagliano listed -There are people on the list whose names/surnames were misspelled (maybe this is him?) Mortillaro and Zito (misspelled) as also listed as witnesses

  8. Hedy Schenker Says:

    Thank You So Much, I Will Look through All of this Info

  9. A witness paints the terrible Triangle shirtwaist fire | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] what he saw: the intense smoke and fire, helpless crowds, and the shrouded bodies of workers who jumped or fell to death being laid out on the sidewalk by […]

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