Sunday, March 25, 2018

Triangle fire still burns

     The March for Our Lives was inspirational, as people across the country, mostly young, gathered Saturday to refute the culture of death that our leaders have allowed to take hold of our country.
     While it was certainly historic, it is also a reminder that change is seldom easy, and that common people ALWAYS have had to win basic human conditions under which to live by protest and action. 
     Sunday happens to be the anniversary of one of the most horrendous workplace tragedies in history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City. Many of the safety changes in place today—the sort of standards threatened by the Trump administration—were put in place in the wake of the fire.
     I wrote this piece to commemorate its centennial. Note the third paragraph from the end, and remember that promising to enact change, and actually changing, are two very different things.

     At 3:40 p.m. today, Chicago time, it will be exactly 100 years to the minute since someone tossed a cigarette into a bin of scrap cloth on the 8th floor of the Asch Building on New York's Lower East Side, touching off what for the last century has been known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
      It was a Saturday, so only 600 of the usual 1,000 employees—500 women and girls and 100 men—were working. Their 12-hour shift over, they had put their street clothes on, collected their pay envelopes—$6 a week—and were waiting for the bell. Ten minutes later the place would have been empty.
     The fire raced through the eighth floor, fed by piles of lint, linen hanging on wires from the ceiling and oil stored in the open to keep the machines running. It spread to the ninth and 10th floors, sending panicked workers running to the two fire escapes. One was anchored to the outside of the building, down into the alley. The other was inside.
     The building was 11 years old, considered both "modern"—it was served by four elevators —as well as "fireproof." But the ladders between the levels of the outside escape were missing—those who fled there couldn't get down. And the doors to the inside fire escape were locked, to prevent theft.
     The first fire engine company to respond arrived in minutes, firemen dodging what at first they thought were bolts of cloth being tossed from the burning building.
     They weren't bolts of cloth, but workers leaping to escape the flames. The firemen raced to set up their ladders, but they needn't have hurried—their ladders fell 20 feet short.
     The streets filled with onlookers watching in horror as those trapped above were squeezed between burning and falling to death. Most were teenage girls from immigrant families—Italians, Russians, Germans; most "could barely speak English." The weight of the women on the back fire escape tore it from its moorings and sent it crashing into the alley, killing everyone on it.
     The crowd on the street shouted "don't jump!" but the seamstresses had little choice.
     Five girls watched from one window as the firemen tried to work a ladder to them but couldn't reach. "They leaped together," the New York Times reported the next day, "clinging to each other, with fire streaming back from their hair and dresses."
     A 13-year-old girl hung by her fingertips for three minutes from a 10th-floor ledge before dropping to her death.
     There was heroism. Three of the four elevator operators kept at their posts, making repeated runs to the smoky eighth floor, returning packed with survivors. When one operator finally fled screaming "fire!" into the street, a New York University law student took over and made four more trips before the flames destroyed the shaft.
     It was all over in half an hour—146 workers had died. Examining the charred bodies, the New York City coroner was seen "sobbing like a child." There had been warnings aplenty, which the factory owners ignored.
     "This is just the calamity I have been predicting," said the city's fire chief. "Look around everywhere; nowhere will you find fire escapes. . . . Only last Friday a manufacturer's association met on Wall Street to oppose my plan [for a] sprinkler system, as well as the additional escapes."
     That night at the morgue, another hellish scene unfolded as bereaved relatives gathered to identify loved ones, "the sobbing and shrieking mothers and wives and frantic fathers and husbands of those who had not been accounted for." Many victims, burned beyond recognition, were identified only by the heel of a shoe or the scar on a knee.
     The next day, the police at the morgue turned away many curious New Yorkers: well-dressed businessmen and groups of schoolgirls who came to "see the sights."
     Ironically, the year before, the International Ladies Garment Workers had struck the Triangle, demanding higher wages and better working conditions, the first mass strike by women in the United States. The owners promised to meet their demands, and the strike ended. No changes were made, of course—instead, one by one, those involved in the union were fired, and so were not there that fatal day, but lived to press for the reforms that came in the wake of the disaster.
     The Asch Building was indeed fireproof—largely undamaged by the fire, it stands today, part of New York University.
     Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were charged with manslaughter but acquitted. Their insurance company compensated them handsomely for their loss.

                    —Originally published in the Sun-Times March 25, 2011 


  1. People who take the 40-hour week and humane working conditions for granted need to realize that capitalists did not bestow those things out of the goodness of their hearts. Heroic workers and their advocates, both famous like Eugene Debs and obscure, won them with their blood, often literally.

    In fact, the relatively benign conditions of the 1950s through the 1970s now seem like a historical accident, a result of the USA being the only major nation to come through World War II relatively unscathed. Business is done treating employees as partners; now they're back to being nuisances, who must be paid as little as possible so that ever more money can flow to the "stakeholders."

    1. The hard won rights of workers were partially rolled back with arguments of excess by the UAW and other unions. The Washington Post had to carry needless printers to mollify their union. The class struggle may never end with an equitable distribution of wealth but we are due for the pendulum to swing the workers way again. Just need to give it a little push.

  2. In one of my early classes in law school, this case was discussed. A crucial witness for the prosecution, one of those teenaged immigrants with little English, told her story clearly and emphatically. On cross examination, the defense attorney asked her to repeat the testimony. She did in exactly the same words. He asked her again and she did so again, word for word. Obviously, the witness had been coached. And the owners, who had plenty of notice of the hazards the workers faced, were acquitted because of the folly of the prosecutors and the cunning of the defense attorney.


  3. "The strong do what they will. The weak suffer what they must." Thucydides


  4. "could barely speak English. Neil did you forget a " at the end of the sentence. Rare for you if you did. Brilliant article.

  5. For some reason, best left to the shrinks, I started reading about infamous fires (Chicago, San Francisco, Peshtigo WI, the Iroquois Theater, the Cleveland Clinic, the Cocoanut Grove in Boston, various hotels and ships and other public places---all with many gruesome deaths) when I was in junior high. I also read the Leon Stein book about the Triangle disaster. It's extremely graphic...but I couldn't put it down.

    My family moved out of a West Side neighborhood less than a mile from Our Lady of Angels parochial school while I was in first grade...when the 1958 fire happened, I was in sixth grade. I saw all the awful images in the Daily News and on TV, which I could neither look at nor manage not to, and had nightmares for weeks. Years later, I found out it wasn't just me. OLA affected Fifties kids all over Chicago, and in old schools in the rest of the country as well. They've never forgotten it, either.

    Maybe OLA was why I began reading those awful stories. But the one about the Triangle disaster was the last. Couldn't handle it anymore. Thankfully, in my teens, I got into many other subjects that interested me. But even today, the thought of death by fire still terrifies me. It has to be one of the worst ways to go. There have since been other books written about the Triangle fire, but I find I'm in no big hurry to read them.

    My grandmother was 21 and was married and living in New York in 1911, and had just given birth to the oldest of my father's six brothers. She worked in the needle trades (as did my other grandmother, and some of my other relatives), and she was a young radical who'd been forced to run for her life at 15 (something like a 1905 Bernadine Dohrn). But she never mentioned that tragic and fateful day.

    It's sadly ironic that the centennial of this terrible event was so closely preceded by the 2011 anti-union campaigns in Wisconsin and Michigan and Ohio.

    I had to learn about the fire on my own. Apparently, the union-busters of today have not done the same. How anyone could read about or watch documentaries about the Triangle Fire--and still be anti-union--is beyond my comprehension.

    1. I feel the same about reading about the Holocaust. (I am Jewish) It is really hard to take after reading the horror seeing the pictures. The last book I have read about the war which was not about the camps was Bielski Brothers. There is a documentary and a movie about them. I was unaware of both.

  6. I also read the Leon Stein book and agree,it was impossible to put down.

  7. Great article! Employees back then were treated not only as property but as dispensable. Thankfully the Equal Employment Commission was created to protect employees — but it was a long time coming.


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