93 Years After the Triangle Fire

Today I attended the 93rd Annual Commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, just east of Washington Square Park.

Although the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire isn’t commonly known today except by historians and labor activists, we live with the results everyday. In 18 minutes on March 25, 1911, a fire rushing through the Triangle Shirtwaist factory killed 146 workers, nearly all of them women and girls as young as 14. The majority of them died not from the smoke and fire, but because, facing the choice between dying from the fire and dying from a nine-story jump, they chose the jump. The doors inside the factory were locked (to prevent petty theft and labor organizing) and the fire escape was so flimsy that it collapsed under the first rush. Girls plunged to the sidewalk, one after the other, until the water from the firehoses in the gutter turned red from the blood. There had been discussion about the necessity for fire safety laws before, both from city officials and from labor organizers; only a year before, there had been a similar fire in Hackensack, New Jersey in which 25 workers jumped to their deaths. New York Fire Chief Edward Kroker said very explicitly and prophetically that conditions in New York were ideal for a similar tragedy.

The horror of the Triangle fire galvanized organizers and the public, especially after Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners of Triangle, were found not guilty of any wrongdoing. The spectacle of street gutters filling with women’s blood was too much for the public to forget, and for the first time, real workplace safety laws started to be passed, not only in New York, but across the United States.

The building is still there, at the corner of Washington Square and Greene, and is now owned by New York University. I have been living with the Triangle Fire for over a year now, because my girlfriend, who is the co-founder of a theater company (Flying Fig Theater) has co-produced and acted in several productions of a play about the fire, starting with last year’s Fringe Festival. I’ve done my humble best to provide what little emotional and material support I can. As you can imagine, it’s been the subject of constant discussion, and often finds itself woven into more indirect discussions.

Today was the 93rd anniversary of the fire, and we attended the commemoration ceremony with Heather, the director/co-producer, and Ellen, the writer, and some other people involved in the production. The core of the ceremony consists of a fire truck raising its ladder to the seventh floor, as far as the ladders would go in 1911; then a fire bell is rung one time for each of the victims while the names are recited and one white carnation is placed on the sidewalk for each one. We each placed a carnation. Mine was for Bertha Manders, a 22-year-old who died of multiple burns and injuries in the hospital.

Mickey placed a flower for Max Lehrer, 22 years old, dead of multiple injuries.

Heather’s flower was placed for Celia Weintraub, 17 and also dead of multiple injuries.

One of the great things about the ceremony is the way that it ties the past with the present. Many such things only serve to confirm how dead and irrelevant the past is. I have a hunch that it won’t be long before the WTC memorial feels like that. But the Triangle ceremony does an excellent job of giving those lives and deaths meaning, and somehow you could see them reflected in the modern-day union workers and leaders there to pay their respects on a dank, rainy day almost a century later.

Three workers from UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees each hold a carnation representing a worker who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

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