Friday, March 25, 2011

The Triangle Factory Fire

100 years ago today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire, killing over 140 young women. Most of the victims were recent immigrant Jewish and Italian women aged sixteen to twenty-three. It is one of the America's landmark disasters. And we should remember those who died.

It happened in New York's famed garment district, which in those days employed women and girls as young as 10 years old...or even younger...for 9 to 12 hour, 6 day shifts.

"On Saturday, March 25, 1911, at 4:45 p.m., near quitting time, a fire broke out on the Triangle Waist Company building's eighth and ninth floors. Factory foremen had locked the exit doors to keep union organizers out and keep workers from taking breaks and stealing scraps of fabric. Other doors only opened inward and were blocked by the stampede of workers struggling to escape. The ladders of the city's fire engines could not reach high enough to save the employees.

As a result, workers burned or jumped to their deaths.

On April 6, 30,000 New Yorkers marched -- and hundreds of thousands more lined the march's route -- to memorialize the fire's victims."

Louis Waldman, later a New York Socialist state assemblyman, described the scene years later:

"A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.

Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.

The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines."

It was outrageous and dangerous conditions that led to these tragic deaths. The overworked girls were kept in ridiculously cramped spaces and in those days there was no OSHA to secure better and safer environments.

New Yorkers and indeed all of America were saddened and horrified by what happened. Those girls did not die in vain though because as a result of that tragedy, people of all walks rallied for change in workplaces everywhere.

"The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers. As a result of the fire, the American Society of Safety Engineers was founded in New York City on October 14, 1911."

CNN Article

HuffPost Blog on whether conditions are any safer.

Rabbi Levine's Blog on Remembering the Fire

GREAT article on the history and lessons learned from the fire.

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