Triangle Fire Hero: Joseph Zito

He saved a hundred female factory workers.

Joseph Zito was an elevator operator who saved a hundred female factory workers from a deadly fire in 1911.

Joseph, an Italian immigrant, was 27 years old and had been working in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in downtown Manhattan, for six months. The factory produced women’s blouses. Joseph lived a few blocks away with his wife and small child.

The fire started at 4:30 pm. Five hundred young women, almost all of them Jewish or Italian immigrants, were looking forward to closing time. The women worked 52 hours and made about $10 a week.

Hundreds of pounds of highly flammable fabric scraps on the 8th floor caught fire, most likely from a cigarette butt, and the fire spread very quickly through the 8th, 9th and 10th floors.

Joseph continued running the elevator as smoke filled the building. Each time he filled his 6-by-9-foot elevator with as many as 40 people. He kept running the elevator even as the flames grew closer.

Desperate to escape from the rapidly moving inferno, women began jumping into the open elevator shaft. Bodies piled up on top of the elevator as Joseph made his final trip. As he neared the ground floor, Joseph heard the elevator cables snap. The elevator fell to the bottom of the shaft. Joseph broke his leg, and waited to be rescued.

The New York Times reported that Zito saved 100 young women that day.

In eighteen minutes, 146 workers lost their lives. The death toll was so high because the bosses had locked the exit doors to prevent theft. The tragedy led to legislation requiring stricter safety standards in factories. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was energized after the fire to fight for improved conditions for sweatshop workers.

In a lawsuit against the factory owners, many Triangle workers were bribed to testify that working conditions were safe. Joseph refused.

Joseph never regained his emotional well-being. He suffered lingering health problems from the smoke and the elevator crash, and his wife had a miscarriage soon after the fire, which they blamed on the stress of the tragedy.

Joseph moved to Ohio and became a railway worker, but he was laid off and came back east, settling in New Jersey. He struggled to find permanent work and died at age 48. The Jersey Observer’s headline read, “Saved 100 From Death, Dies Penniless.”

Joseph was a Mason, and when the Masons heard of his death, they gave him a ceremonial Masonic burial.

For making repeated trips into a burning building to save terrified factory workers, we honor Joseph Zito as this week’s Thursday Hero at Accidental Talmudist.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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