The Devil’s Fire

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The Latest From WSKG TV Productions

Tuesday, July 22, 1913 was shaping up to be another in a long string of uncomfortably hot days
in Binghamton, New York. By eleven o’clock that morning, the thermometer mounted on the
lawn of the city’s courthouse already read 91 degrees. Even the steady breeze that blew across
the Chenango River couldn’t help cool the shop floors of the Binghamton Clothing Company
which overlooked the river on Wall Street. Nearly every window of the building’s four stories was opened wide to help relieve the factory’s 122 workers from the sweltering summer heat. Many of the young sewers and seamstresses working on the fourth floor, some as young as 16, had opted to shed their heavy dresses, working in knee high bloomers and aprons.

Around 2:30, the factory’s fire alarm began to ring, many workers, believing it was just another drill, hesitated to leave their machines. The alarm was real. On the first floor the company’s owner Reed B. Freeman and others were waging a desperate attempt to extinguish a quickly spreading blaze in the building’s stairwell. Within minutes, the unstoppable inferno, fanned by the open windows and highly flammable material, would engulf the entire building with smoke and flames. Over the next 20 minutes, before the building’s collapse, a dramatic tableau of panic, heroism, tragedy and death would unfold within the doomed factory’s walls and before the eyes of helpless firefighters and onlookers on the streets below. 31 workers would die. It remains, over 100 years later, the most costly human tragedy in the city’s history.

The Clothing Company fire would thrust Binghamton firmly to the forefront of the national debate over worker safety, coming just two years after the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City that killed over 140 workers. The Clothing Company tragedy would serve as a
gruesome reminder of the peril that many industrial workers continued to face in early 20th
century America.

The Devil’s Fire, a documentary film from WSKG Public Media and filmmaker Brian Frey, takes a revealing look at the factory setting and working conditions in an era when the Southern Tier was at the height of its manufacturing and industrial might. Drawing from archived diaries, journals, and newspaper accounts, The Devil’s Fire uncovers the fascinating words and lives of the men and women, many American newcomers, working to realize the dream they had fled their homelands to find, seldom aware of the potential dangers present, or of the ultimate sacrifice some would pay working to achieve it.

Premiering December 6th at 8:00 pm only on WSKG TV