I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The Triangle Factory Fire

Monday was the 113th anniversary of the Triangle fire. On March 25, 1911, 146 workers, almost all of them Jewish and Italian immigrants, mostly teenagers and young women, died when a fire started on the eighth floor of a building on the east side of Washington Square. Some died when the single fire escape collapsed; many jumped to their deaths to escape the flames.

I knew about the fire, and I'd often walked by the building, but “work” is the theme of my class this semester and we've studied the fire. And there was so much I didn't know, about the fire ladders that only reached the sixth floor, about the lucky few who escaped by sliding down the cables in the elevator shaft, that the entire catastrophe lasted less than twenty minutes. Or that Max Blanck, one of the owners, who was acquitted of manslaughter because there was no proof he and his partner knew that the exit doors were locked, was arrested again in 1913 when locked doors were found at his new factory. He paid a $25 fine.

Or that Frances Perkins, who I knew only as the Secretary of Labor under FDR and the first woman to serve in the cabinet, was having tea with a friend on Washington Square and saw the fire. It had a profound effect on her and she quit her job at the consumer league to work for the state commission that investigated the fire. She later said that the fire was “the first day of the New Deal.”

I went to the commemoration on Monday, and also participated in the Chalk project. For the past twenty years on March 25 volunteers have written the names and ages of all 146 victims in chalk on the sidewalk in front of the buildings where they lived. My friend Jayne had two names and I had two names and we went from the Lower East Side below Delancey to East 12th Street, remembering Jennie, Bessie, Sarah and Josephine. We may have lacked artistry—getting down to the sidewalk and back up again was a challenge and chalk wasn't as easy to manipulate as I remembered—but it was a strangely moving experience.

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