Time has a way of making people forget even the greatest disasters. As the years pass, there are fewer people remaining who actually remember events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In terms of disasters, many times the memory is kept alive by survivors or their families and friends. For example, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic next April. No survivors remain, but books and films have long contributed to the continuing of the flame of memory. Indeed, no survivors remain from what was known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and that terrible event happened one hundred years ago today in New York City.
At a time when the mayor and governor of New York State both seem to want to lessen the strength of unions (because of what they say are necessary budgetary considerations), the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is a vivid reminder of why workplace laws and unions were strengthened in the first place. The need for labor laws became dramatized by this event, and even the New York City Fire Department began seriously working on fire prevention as part of the necessary and compelling work that they do.
Those of us who remember September 11, 2001, will recall New Yorkers staring up at the sky and watching an incomprehensible event. Besides the fire and smoke pouring out of the Twin Towers, many people dropped from the sky to the pavement far below that day. They chose to escape a horrific death from fire and smoke by jumping out of windows. The many bystanders witnessed these falls from the sky, stunned by the swiftness of the bodies dropping and the sound of their crushing against the earth.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was the 9/11 of that time. Many poor immigrants worked in the building in lower Manhattan. It was a Saturday, and the young Jewish and Italian girls working in the shop made female shirts at a business known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.
My grandfather, who was born and grew up not far from where this fire took place, remembered the incident well. At the time he was driving a horse-drawn ice wagon, and he recalled the commotion and the smoke on the upper floors (actually the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors). Inside the male tailors were using fire buckets ineffectively against the blaze; outside the water from the fire hoses didn’t make it up that high; neither did the ladders on the trucks.
Pop remembered many people jumping, their hair and clothes on fire, and he said that everyone on the ground seemed powerless to help those inside. The girls and other workers (200 or more of them) were trying to find a way out. One problem was that there were two small elevators that could only hold a few people at a time; the other was that the escape doors to stairwells were rushed but were either locked or jammed.
Certainly this story is about deplorable working conditions, people trapped on upper floors in tight quarters with no means of escape. Obviously, there were no sprinklers or fire doors or water hoses like we would find in buildings today. All of the things we expect to see in modern skyscrapers developed from the reaction to what happened on this terrible day in Manhattan.
My grandfather recalled having many deliveries to make, and the crowd became overwhelming as more people poured into the area on the heels of firefighters arriving to attempt to fight the blaze. In an effort to make up time and get out before he became trapped, he got his horse to go around the crowds of people and headed away from the scene of the disaster to make his deliveries. “I knew there was nothing I or anyone else could do for those poor people,” he said, still seemingly moved by it when he told me many years later.
One hundred forty-six people died that day. The building was supposed to be fireproof (according to the standards of the day) but, just as the Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable, it didn’t stop either from becoming a deathtrap. Families of the victims sued the owners of the company, getting little monetary satisfaction. Just as the Titanic disaster forced safety changes on cruise ships (like having enough lifeboats for everyone on board), this fire did the same thing for factories. Because of what happened, New York State did enact laws to protect workers in sweatshops like this, and the event would strengthen the push for unions to protect workers and get them health coverage.
The building is still there and is used by New York University today. The Titanic rots away on the bottom of the ocean floor. Both major events of the early 20th century were cases of people dying unnecessarily because of poor or nonexistent safety measures. They are also inexorably linked to New York City; one happened right in its heart; the other was bound for our waters but never made it here.
One hundred years have gone by since that day, and hopefully we continue to learn from disasters like these. Still, with a mayor and governor who are looking to cut the strength of unions in this city and state, we have to wonder if this solemn anniversary is in some way not a reminder of a dark past but a grim warning about things we thought would never come again.
Photo Credits: Cornell.edu