Scores of other workers were trapped in the 10-story building that houses eight garment shops and other offices.
"We thought the fire was in our floor, the 10th floor. There was so much smoke we couldn't even see the tables where we work," said a co-worker of Hernández. Workers in the building tried to exit through the stairwell, which doubled as the fire escape, but found only thick black smoke.
Other workers from the lower floors jumped to the street, incurring minor injuries. One woman was in critical condition after falling inside the building.
Hernández died as he was trying to climb down four stories to the rooftop of the adjacent building. He and his coworkers had made a rope out of cloth for the escape. Hernández lost control and fell as he was climbing down.
This attempt was necessary because, to the surprise of the workers on the upper floors, there was not a fire escape on the outside of the building. Other workers on the eighth floor exited by going down cloth ropes of their own, although many stopped trying this after seeing the worker fall.
A ladder from a fire truck was used to rescue people trapped on the upper floors. It took more than an hour for the 150 firefighters deployed to the building to bring the smoke and flames from the basement under control.
The landlord had been granted permission by the city's Buildings Department in 1997 to use the basement for manufacturing use, which meant it was filled with rags and rubbish.
Workers in the garment district are familiar with similar conditions in the hundreds of small garment shops located in midtown Manhattan.
Most stairwells are heavily used because of congestion on the elevators. Most are dangerous, narrow places with worn-out steps from frequent use. As the fire showed, the doors do not protect the stairwell from becoming a conduit for smoke and flames to reach the upper floors. The tragedy and political reverberations of the fire didn't escape City Hall, forcing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to visit the site. It is located one block away from the large sculpture of a button and needle and a tourist information booth of the area the city calls the Fashion District.
Known as the garment district by thousands of mostly immigrant and unorganized workers, the area is in reality the center of a thriving and profitable industry where bosses and city officials know how unprepared they are for deadly accidents like this.
In March 1911 the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company cost the lives of 146 garment workers, dozens of them jumping to their death from the ninth floor of the building in which they were trapped. Tens of thousands of workers marched in a tribute to those who died behind a banner that read: "We Demand Fire Protection."
Sprinklers, fire escapes, and fire drills became demands of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union--the predecessor of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.
As part of the social movement it led, tens of thousands of garment workers organized themselves into the union in the city.
Paco Sánchez is a member of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.
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