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.
“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.'”