Friday, January 14, 2011

Thomas Horton: Unsung Triangle Fire Hero From Harlem?

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


Michelle Gaffey said...

Horton also testified at the trial, and he noted that he was "downstairs with the engineer" during the fire (see page 1339 of Vol. 3, Sec. 2 of the trial transcript). I am trying to locate Thomas Brooks's source for his 1957 American Heritage article in which he cites Horton. I do think the trial transcript suggests that Horton was in the basement with the engineer, but I'd love to have more of his story documented with evidence, if possible. Any leads? I'm considering tracking down Thomas R. Brooks in New York for help in this matter.

Michelle Gaffey said...

...and I just found this gem with the help of poet Chris Llewellyn. An article from McClure's Magazine in 1911 seems to be the original source for the 1957 American Heritage article. According to the McClure Magazine, Thomas Horton did indeed work in the basement with the engineer while the building was in flames:


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