March 24, 2011
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on March 25, 1911, remains one of the greatest workplace tragedies in American history. The deaths of 146 garment workers in New York City — most of them young, immigrant women — led to legislative reforms on a national level and spurred the growth of organized labor. On the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, people around the country are remembering the victims, and the labor legacy they inspired.
On a recent morning, a small group of men and women met to recite the Jewish mourner’s prayer for Triangle workers buried in the Mount Richmond Cemetery on Staten Island. Twenty-two of the fire’s victims were laid to rest at Mount Richmond, and the Hebrew Free Burial Association still uses the cemetery to inter Jews who cannot pay for their burial.
Michael Hirsch is a researcher who came to mourn those who lost their lives in the fire. He has spent four years tracking down the descendants of those killed and trying to identify the unknown victims. It all started when he learned that a Triangle worker named Lizzie Adler had lived on the same block in the East Village where he has lived for 20 years.
“I visit her — all of them — a couple of times a year. I take care of their graves. That’s Lizzie right here,” he says, pointing to a grave. “She was a 24-year-old woman from Bucharest, Romania. She had only been in the country 16 weeks when she died in the Triangle fire.”
Most of the people who perished in the fire were Jewish or Italian-American women — and several of the victims had been in the U.S. for a very short time. Scores of workers jumped from the eighth and ninth floors of the 10-story building to their deaths. It was their only way to escape the flames — doors were locked to prevent theft, the building’s single fire escape collapsed, and after several trips to rescue workers, the elevator broke down.
Pauline Pepe, a 19-year-old who lived in New York’s Little Italy, survived the fire. She remembers that after she made her way down to the street, she looked back up to the top of the building, engulfed in flames.
“We were all crying,” she recalls, on a recording kept in the archives of the Kheel Center at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “My God, I was cold. I had no coat on or nothing.” Corpses of workers who jumped were strewn in the street. “All bodies, of — it was terrible. How those girls did it — I don’t know how they had the courage to throw themselves down. I couldn’t do it.”
The horrific sight of workers falling to their deaths played out again in Lower Manhattan almost 90 years later on Sept. 11, 2001, when men and women jumped from the burning world trade towers. And in April 2010, workers were forced to either jump or burn when the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig burned in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, Hirsch was working on a documentary about the Triangle fire, which made its debut Monday on HBO. As he watched interviews with one of the Deepwater Horizon survivors, Hirsch was struck by the parallels to the Triangle disaster.
“It was chilling,” Hirsch says. “[The survivor] said he was standing on the deck of that thing with another person and they were trying to decide whether they should die by jumping or burning. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, that’s Triangle.’ Here are two people, two workers, trying to make the same decision that many of [the Triangle victims] had to make.”
This month, scores of events to commemorate the dead are scheduled around the country; about half of them are taking place in New York. Ruth Sergel, an artist who chalks the names of victims every year on sidewalks outside the New York City buildings where they lived, has helped organize some of the events and helped create an online archive to mark the tragedy.
“A wonderful archivist for Our Lady of Pompeii [Church], which buried 18 of the victims, has been posting all sorts of documents that have never been digitized before — documents from the Mass that was read for the victims,” Sergel says.
Another church in Greenwich Village will host the premiere of a new dramatic oratorio about the Triangle fire. Composer Elizabeth Swados lives just a few blocks from the site of the Triangle fire and says she was drawn to the project because most of the victims were young women.
“It’s a composer’s job to commemorate,” Swados says. “It’s one of the things we’re supposed to do. To love the dead is to love life all that much more and to value life all that much more.”
Some 400,000 New Yorkers turned out in pouring rain for the funeral procession in 1911. The names of all those who died were not known until Hirsch was able to identify the last six Triangle fire victims by poring over old ethnic newspapers and public records.
“Bertha Kulla — I finally found her family this year,” Hirsch says. “She’s actually a Shirtwaist striker. She was arrested on the picket line. … Usually, when you see accounts of this, there are no faces attached to it. They’re a number — immigrant workers, 146 immigrants. This gives them back their identity.”
On Friday afternoon, church bells will ring at the time the fire broke out, and for the first time the names of all 146 victims will be read in front of the building that once housed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.