I couldn’t let the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire go unnoticed. It was one hundred years ago today that a fire in the factory of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company took the lives of 146 workers. Most of these were young Italian and Jewish immigrant women who had passed through Ellis Island in recent years. These women, teenage girls in some cases, lived in nearby Little Italy and Lower East Side and worked a six-day schedule making ladies’ shirtwaists for about $10 per week. The cause of death in many cases was not burning but asphyxiation and, tragically, trauma caused by victims leaping to their death to avoid the intense heat. Mayor Bloomberg and other dignitaries were on hand at what was then the Asch and is today the Brown Building at 29 Washington Place in Greenwich Village. There were also descendants of the Triangle victims present to pay their respects to their grandparents and great-grandparents.
More lives would have been saved if the factory owners had not violated regulations by locking various doors and putting heavy equipment in front of others. The Fire Department responded quickly to the emergency but the factory was situated on the top floors, too high for the fire ladders. It was at this time, in a scene similar to 9/11 ninety years later, that onlookers saw dozens of victims jumping to their deaths. It was the costliest workplace mishap in New York City’s history and a quarter million New Yorkers looked on a few days later when 100,000 individuals marched in the memorial service. The public nature of the tragedy led to an outcry that spurred new employee safety regulations.
Unfortunately I was unable to attend, but the Gotham Center for New York City History held a number of events this week analyzing and commemorating the event. This past Monday PBS’s American Experience aired Triangle Fire, which they will certainly air again. Home Box Office (HBO) is airing a documentary, Triangle: Remembering the Fire, through April. Check your listings.