Today in History: The Triangle Fire

Ninety-nine years ago today, 146 young garment workers died when their New York City workplace went up in flames.

I was sixteen when I read labor historian Leon Stein’s account of the  Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – first published in 1962 but still essential today. Stein was writing at a time when many fire survivors were still alive, and he made excellent use of his interviews with them. To a kid who had picked up the book from idle curiosity, the survivors’ anguished memories were like a punch in the stomach — so many were my own age at the time. I suppose I led a charmed life; it took Stein’s book to shock me into realizing that being a teenager doesn’t confer immortality.

This wrenching video combines period images with audiotape of survivor interviews:

My mother’s cousin Alma, a thirteen-year-old Brooklyn girl when the fire occurred, recalled the horrifying newspaper accounts: “The doors opened in, not out. They pushed and pushed, but they couldn’t get out.” Not only that, the owners had a habit of locking the factory’s doors for fear of theft; the one fire escape was pitifully inadequate and quickly buckled under the strain of escaping workers; the firefighters’ ladders were too short to reach the windows where workers desperately pleaded for help.

Despite the fact that the factory’s owners never faced serious consequences for the appalling state of their building, the fire proved to be a turning point in awareness of substandard conditions for factory workers. Small comfort to the families of the dead, but important nonetheless.

The Kheel Center at Cornell University maintains a breathtakingly detailed multimedia site about the Triangle fire, including a page with a list of victims and survivors. If you think you might be descended from a Triangle worker, this is definitely a place to investigate.

Today the building which housed the factory is known as the Brown Building of Science, owned by New York University. Two plaques commemorate the terrible tragedy that happened there. A federation of New York City preservationists, artists and labor activists called Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition is preparing to mark next year’s centenary. In addition to spearheading educational events about the fire, they hope to establish a permanent memorial to the victims.

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