Interviews: Survivors of the Triangle Factory Fire

Sarah Friedman Dworetz

Job: unknown

9th floor

Interviewed: June 12, 1958

On the day of the fire I was working on the 9th floor, I had gotten my pay and we were all ready to leave and all dressed.

The fire must have been burning on the 8th floor for some time when we went to the freight elevator exit to go home. We had to leave that way because that is the way the watchman was able to look in our bags and where he stayed.

There was a narrow vestibule leading to the freight elevator. I was waiting in that vestibule when all of a sudden the smoke, and then the fire, began to come up the elevator shaft. I turned to run back to the other end of the shop where the freight elevator was. I took one look into the shop as I ran and I saw the flames coming in from all sides.

The elevators were going up and down. On the front side the door to the staircase was closed. I had to fight and push my way across the shop. There was screaming and shoving and many girls tried to climb over the machine tables.

The elevator had made several trips. I knew this was the last one but it was so loaded that the car started to go down. The door was not closed. Suddenly I was holding to the sides of the door looking down the elevator shaft with girls screaming and pushing behind me.

It was the old style elevator — cable elevator — to make it go down, you pulled the cable from the floor up. That cable was at the side of the elevator shaft. I reached out and grabbed it. I remember sliding all the way down. I was the first one to slide down the shaft. I ended up on top of the elevator and then I lost consciousness. Others must have landed on top of me. When the rescue workers came to the shaft they pulled me out and laid me out on the street. I had a broken leg, broken arm. My skull had been injured. One of my hands had been burned by friction.

NOTE: (apparently this is a case in which the victim, taken for dead, was removed with the other bodes but separated from them when life was detected in time.)

They moved me into the book store. My only worry was that I did not want to go to a hospital. We lived on 170 Henry St. I was only afraid of the shock to my mother. I lived on the 4th floor.

I was sick for 6 months.

I never heard from the company after.

At the trial, the lawyer asked me over and over again but I refused to say that the door was open.

We got a $1.50 for being witnesses.

I must have worked there about a year at the time of the fire but the day of the fire was the first time I tried to use the front elevator.

NOTE: Mrs. Dworetz learned in this interview for the first time that there was a fire escape.

While we were on the freight side I saw flames in the shop. The flames were all around us as we ran across the floor.

When I got home I still had my pay envelope still clutched in my hand.

NOTE: Mrs. Dworetz volunteered the information that every time March 25th rolls around many of these event seize her.

She said that some people are amused by her practice of not locking her door when she is at summer resorts but she says they just don’t understand.

 

Mary Domsky-Abrams

Job: Blouse Operator

9th floor

Interview date unknown

MY REMINISCENCES OF THE TRIANGLE FIRE

It was a day that was bursting with life–a day full of the first breaths of springand fate ruled that on this day, l46 young lives should be snuffed out in a terrible manner; they were destroyed by the horrible Triangle fire.

Actually, the direct death toll should be tallied at 147, because a Jewish young man, whose fiancee worked at Triangle, had been ill in a hospital, and when he learned of the fire, he jumped out of bed and died of a heart attack.

There were many indirect victims of the fire. Mothers who lost their daughters–girls full of life and hope, brides-to-be, innocent–could not contain their grief, and many of them passed away before their time.

What happened that morning? I’ll tell what I remember, as one of the girls who worked in the Triangle company as a blouse operator, and how I escaped, through a coincidence, the fate of my comrades.

Four of us girls, who comprised the price committee, and the chairlady used to get together frequently on settling of prices for the different work. Our regular meeting place in the shop was at the window near which there were water buckets for use in a fire.

Though we sat at that spot many times, it’s remarkable that just on this day, I first noticed that the buckets were empty, as they had been all along. But on that particular morning, the day of the tragedy, I remarked to my colleagues that the buckets were empty, and that if anything were to happen, they would be of no use. This was said in passing, as we were preoccupied with talk about work, friends, etc.

Then we saw the manager approaching, so we quickly ended our conversation. His name was Bonstein (?); I think he was a relative of the bosses (we never saw them). He was a short person, with broad shoulders and piercing eyes. He always had a cynical smile on his face. He was strict and unscrupulous with the workers. But I must admit he was very clever, and very apt for his job. When he would see a group of us in conversation, he would sidle over, calmly, with the cynical smile on his face, on the chance that he might be able to pick up a word or two of what we were saying. Of course, as soon as we saw him approach, we would immediately change the subject and start talking about theater, concerts, opera, etc.

One day he said to us: “It is a remarkable thing! We’re living in such wonderful times! When did workers ever know about theaters and concerts? And now–they occupy almost all the seats at performances…” And we replied, “Mr.Bonstein, the workers are more entitled to enjoy these than the bosses are.”

As he came near us on that fateful day, one girl asked him, “Mr. Bonstein, why is there no water in the buckets? In case of a fire, there would be nothing with which to fight it,” He became enraged at our group of price committee members, and with inhuman anger replied: “If you’ll burn, there’ll be something to put out the fire.”

The clock struck 8 o’clock, and we went to our machines. A cheerful feeling prevailed all over the floor. Perhaps it was because one of the girls came to work that day with a diamond ring which her fiance had given her the night before. I remember that the girl’s name was Esther; she was a very pretty and lively young lady, and on this occasion especially her joy was contagious, enveloping all around her. We who worked nearby were, as a result, feeling very content; we worked, sewed, joked, and were oblivious to the passage of time, unaware that it already was close to 12 o’clock.

At that time, we worked until 4 P.M. every day, including Saturday, and we had only a half-hour for lunch. The fire broke on a Saturday, on March 25, 1911, and it happened just a short time before the workers were set to leave the factory.

This recalls an incident. There were very few men in the shop; the hundreds of girls were mostly Jewish, a few were Italians. I and many others were still practically “greenhorns,” we had been in the country only a year or less. For many, as for me, it was only the second job, for others the first that they had had. Most of us were not yet 20 years old. Across from me and my co-workers sat a boy, Jack Klein. His face reflected his great intelligence, and many of the girls would gaze at him frequently. On this particular day, he went out for lunch, and stayed late. In fact, he didnt return until 3 P.M., an hour before quitting time. We told him that we had been worried about him, afraid something had happened to him. He told us that he had gone to the bank to take out his small bit of saved capital, because he was going to open a small drug store. We all laughed and wished him luck. But–he was one of the victims.

How did I escape? Well, on this occasion, as usual, I and my co-worker, Minnie Bornstein got up from our machines at five minutes before 4 and went to the ladies’ room to change our dress. The manager came over to us and said that there still were five minutes more of work, and that we should go back to our machines. If not, he said, very sternly, we wouldn’t be permitted to come in on Monday.

Never before this time had he said anything about my stopping work five minutes early. I had been active in a strike earlier, and was not intimidated by the manager’s ire. I told him, “That’s OK with me, Mr. Bonstein; I’m not going back to my machine, and I won’t come back here on Monday.”

My co-worker Minnie accompanied me to the dressing room. Suddenly, she recalled she had left her purse on her machine and she wanted to go back and get it. I told her that we should get dressed over first, and she could pick up her purse on the way back, just not to let the manager think we were giving In to him. She agreed. However, almost immediately it became apparent that we could not go back to the machines, and because we were in this part of the shop rather than at the machines, we both were saved.

Esther, who had made us all so happy as the result of her high spirits because of the diamond ring she was given by her fiance, went back to her machine from the dressing roomand perished in the flames.

We were among the first ones to leave the ninth floor to go home. When we got to the back elevator (we would leave only by the back, only exit on one side, because the firm wanted to check on all workers to make sure they weren’t taking anything out with them) we heard screams. At the elevator were two girls, orphans, who lived with their grandmother. One of them asked me, “Mary, what’s all the screaming about?” I told her it was like everytime, everyone was shoving to get out first at the end of the day. At this point, the elevator came to the ninth floor, and a young man emerged. His sister also worked in our shop, and when he saw her standing there, he pushed her into the elevator, without saying anything about a fire. Later, we learned that he himself did not get back into the elevator, and that he was among the victims.

We still didn’t know there was a fire. We were standing at the elevator, waiting for our friend Neda; she always wanted to leave by the elevator, while we usually didn’t want to wait for the elevator and used to leave by the stairs. Neda arrived, and said: “Mary, come quickly!” We took to the stairs, and when we got to the seventh floor, we saw the flames. The fire surged through the windows; everyone panicked, ran, screamed, and didn’t know what to do. I became very frightened, and noticed that my friend was no longer with me. In the confusion, I attempted to run back upstairs, but someone stopped me. I don’t remember how I got downstairs; I only had the feeling that a strong hand guided me. When I was in the street, I saw how people were jumping from the windows and falling like flies.

The tragedy was even greater because of the fact that the fireman’s ladders were too short and couldn’t reach the ninth and tenth floors. Also, the nets spread to catch the jumpers were too weak, and many plunged right through to their deaths. I saw a number of firemen crying as they witnessed victims of the fire killed as they broke through the nets.

A forelady from the ninth f1oor, whom I knew well and who that day had told me she was preparing work for me for Monday, jumped from the high floor and was saved by her coat catching on a hook at the sixth floor, and she remained hanging there.

In the confusion, I watched the fire and saw how the rescue operation was conducted under conditions of panic. Flames poured through the windows of the top floors and thick smoke billowed. How I got to 18 Rutgers St., where I lived, I’ll never knew. But I do remember coning into the house and screamingly asking whether my friend Neda had arrived. They told me she hadn’t. So I ran back to the fire site, but by that time the authorities didn’t let anyone get close to the building, I saw that, besides ambulances, they were bringing caskets.

The screams and sobs all around were deafening. Water was being poured onto the flames, the firemen and police were doing their utmost, but they were not prepared for so overwhelming an emergency, and consequently the number of victims was so large.

A group of men made a human ladder of themselves in an attempt to make it possible for girls hunched in fear at the windows not yet on fire to cross over to the next building, to which there was a small bridge (or passage.) But all the men, about 10 of them, fell down, not being able to bear up under the weight, and were killed together with those who tried to save themselves. We were all deeply moved by the heroism and tried to kiss their bodies as they were being removed to the morgue.

*****

Working conditions at the Triangle shop were quite bearable, for those days. Wage rates weren’t too bad; we had won them by fighting for them, through stoppages, etc. The shop, both on the eighth and ninth floors, was light and airy, and was, more or less, clean, although pieces of cloth from the cutting room were strewn on the floor.

The bosses held themselves aloof from the workers; we never saw them in the shop. They had their offices on the tenth floor, and rarely showed themselves. We dealt only with the manager.

Yes, the doors of the shop were kept locked.

My own machine was located near the locked front doors, and I often looked with fear at the darkness that loomed through the half-glassed door, which made me feel as if some secret force were peering out from there. And it was before this door that the greatest number of victims were caught; they had surged to the door, hoping to escape, but couldnt break through, because the door always was securely locked.

Just how the workers conducted themselves inside at the height of the fire, I don’t know, as I went down five minutes early, and thereby was among those who escaped with their lives.

When the bosses were brought to trial, among the witnesses called were those who had worked near the locked door. I was one of them. In response to questions of judges and lawyer., (including Jacob Panken) I replied:

“In the morning, when we were going up to work, both elevators (front and back) would be operating. But on leaving, only the one in the back was allowed to run. This was because the company directed a watchman to search the girls’ pocketbooks, in which we used to carry our lunches. As the bosses wanted to save the expense of having another watchman at the front, they allowed only one exit to be used for all three floors.

“We considered it to be the greatest insult to have to open our pocketbooks and show that we weren’t stealing anything. The bosses lawyers said this was necessary because the workers brought along these pocketbooks with the intention of slipping out some “waists.

“I retorted, heatedly, that they should be ashamed of spreading such slanders. The fact was that, even if the workers had wanted to steal anything, it would have been impossible, because when bundles of work were distributed, every item was counted and listed on the tickets. And when the work was completed, everything was counted again.

The bosses lawyers made all sorts of excuses, attempting to defend the employers on keeping the door locked, in face of another girls testimony that even when the fire already had broken out, and she was among the first to reach the elevator, she had to show the watchman the contents of her pocketbook…

In my testimony I stated that if the front elevator had also been in use and if the front door had been open, there would not have been so many victims. I pointed to the lock on the door, which was brought in as evidence, to corroborate my statements.

A judge or a lawyer, I don’t remember whichasked me whether I thought the fire was started by the company. I replied that while the company spokesmen claimed they didn’t know just where the fire broke out, the fact was that this wasn’t the first, but the third fire at the company, which could be verified very easily.

The company lawyer jumped up, interrupting me, and started to shout that I wasn’t telling the truth, that I had deliberately come to court in a black dress with a white collar in order to impress the jury.

I told him that no deeper impression was needed than the 147 innocent, young victims of the Triangle Company, the locked door, and the refusal of the bosses to recognize even their indirect responsibility for what had happened.

In the following days of the trial, we survivors of the fire no longer were allowed in court. The families of the victims were not permitted to enter either, because when they would see the bosses, they sought to attack them.

The Triangle Company bosses went free. “Justice” found them not guilty. In those days–and also today–there was no proper measure of justice for lives of workers. The Triangle company was found not guilty, though it had been responsible in the fire that snuffed out 147 lives. But this same “justice” later condemned the martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti, because they hadn’t killed anyone and had fought for true justice.

But although the Triangle bosses were let off, apparently their consciences must have bothered them, or else they wished to temper the wrath that was aroused at them. They sent agents to the parents of the victims, or to other relatives, and offered them a certain sum of money as a reparation for their loss. I know there were some who accepted this money. The company claimed it was giving this money to help support the survivors or to give them an opportunity to go to the “country” to recover from their experiences. They thought they could pay off their crimes in this way.

When the company agents came to me with their money offer, Abrams, then my young comrade, (now my deceased husband) showed them the door.

The tragedy steeled us in our later battles for the trade union and libertarian-socialist movements to which we devoted our lives.

Now, a few more reminiscences of what occurred at that historic workers tragedy:

Most of the victims were from the ninth floor. The flames rapidly enveloped the shop and the girls didn’t have a chance to save themselves.

On both floors (9th and 10th) were employed about 500 girls and a few men. Incidentally, on top of everything else, the elevator cables broke in the middle of the fire and those inside were crushed.

In the panic of the fire, I recall that three girls wrapped themselves in the American flag and jumped out the window together. They landed on the glass manhole cover on the sidewalk and broke through it Their bodies were found later buried in the deep.

Among the dead were a mother and two young sons who all worked in the Triangle Company. They suffocated from smoke while taking cover in a small room in the shop. Several of us survivors later went to their house, a small room somewhere in the East Side. A poor room it was, virtually bare, with a violin hanging on the wall. We imagined we heard plaintive, sorrowful airs coming from the violin…we left quietly, leaving, the violin hang…

A few weeks later, I visited the grandmother of the two sisters, who had asked me, at the elevator, what the shouting and screaming was all about. I was accompanied by a reporter from the Forward. An 80 year-old woman opened the door. She had a “chipik” (?) on her head; a gnarled, sorrowful old woman. She knew me, and called out: “My grandchildren, Friday night, played a record on the victrols, ‘God and His Judgment is Just. I ask you,” she said, lifting her hands to heaven, it Your Judgment truly just? And she said to me: “You’re an athiest, so God didn’t punish you, but my granddaughters were pious girls, so it must be better to be like you and not to serve God…” The old woman broke into tears, and we barely were able to quiet her.

Later I went to visit the parents of Esther, who just before the tragedy had been given a ring by her fiance. The father thanked God that his son, who also had worked at Triangle, had survived. The Mother was broken up, and she told us that Friday night her daughter was radiantly happy; she had played a Russian record on the phonograph, I Didn’t Come to Say Goodbye, and the girl, had sung along so heartily…

The funeral took place several days after the tragedy. All New York–certainly, all of Jewish New York–came to the funeral.

The funeral procession was most moving. These young people–mainly young Jewish girls, pretty as pictures, were being brought to their eternal rest.

Practically all of them were to be married soon, most of them had fiances among the youthful community, their parents also were quite young, people in early middle age.

Choked sobs were heard all around. The people were crying, the streets were crying–and the skies also were crying that day. Just as if heaven and earth were taking part in the tragedy, on that day of the funeral it was a pouring rain. You could touch the sorrow in the air.

That spring of 1911 we mourned our dead comrades, the victims of a society which was concerned only with the profits of an individual and not with the welfare of the many, of the working masses. The Triangle victims were martyrs in the fight for social justice, and the labor movement will always remember them as those who, with their young lives, paved the way for a better world with a more just society, a world free from exploitation, in which equal rights for all will be respected.

 

Celia Walker Friedman

Job: Examiner

9th floor

Interviewed: August 8, 1957

Returned to industry after fire for a period of about 5 years until her marriage.

When I worked in the Triangle shop all the other girls looked on me like I was a real “yankee”. When we came to this country I was only 5 years old and by the time I went to work in the shop I spoke with a real American accent. In the Triangle Co. I am sure that the girls thought I was American born.

I worked on the 9th floor as an examiner. My job was to look over the work to see that it was made correctly – if it wasn’t correct I got it back to the Operaters for fixing. I worked at the last table on the floor. In front of me were the rows of machines running in the same direction as my table. I could see clear across the shop. Way down in the front were the windows. I don’t know if it was Washington or Greene Sts. To my left on the other wall were the windows to the other street.

On the day of the fire I had gotten my clothes. I stood at my table ready to leave. I looked across the shop. In front of me I saw flames on the outside of the windows shooting up. The flames were climbing up from the 8th floor. I was scared and it seemed to me that even before I could move, everybody in the shop started to scream and holler. The girls at the machines began to climb up on the machine tables maybe because it was that they were frightened or maybe they thought they could run to the elevator doors on top of the machines. The aisles were narrow and blocked by the chairs and baskets. They began to fall in the fire. I know now that there was a fire escape in back of me but I ran to the elevator because that was the only place to run to.

NOTE: Mrs. Friedman learned, apparently for the first time, from Stein, of the tragedy on the fire escape.

The door to the stairway was completely blocked by the big crates of blouses and goods. The fire crept closer to us and we were crowded at the elevator door banging and hollering for the elevator. The first time it came up, the girls rushed in and it was crowded in a half a second. The elevator driver struggled with the door and finally closed it and went down with the screaming girls. I was left with those who didn’t make the first trip. Then the elevator came up a second time. The girls were all squeezing against the door and the minute it was opened they rushed again. This time I was sure I would be lucky and get in. I rushed with the other girls but just as I came to the door of the elevator it dropped down right in front of me. I could hear it rush down and I was left standing on the edge trying to hold myself back from falling into the shaft. I held on to the two sides of the open door. Behind me the girls were screaming and I could feel them pushing me more and more. I knew that in a few seconds I would be pushed into the shaft and I made a quick decision. Maybe through panic or maybe through instinct I saw the center cable of the elevator in front of me. I jumped and grabbed the cable. That is all I remember.

My next thing I knew was when I opened my eyes and I was lying on my back and I looked up into the faces of a priest and a nun who were trying to help me. I was in St. Vincent’s Hospital. Everybody thought I was going to die. They found me at the bottom of the shaft. I had saved myself by my jumping. Others had fallen down the shaft on top of me and I suppose I was found by the firemen when they were removing the dead. I have often wondered how I was saved. I was very lucky. By sliding down the cable I was far enough away from where most of the bodies landed on top of the elevator cage as they fell down the shaft. My head was injured and I had a broken arm and a broken finger. I had a large searing scar down the middle of my body, burned by the friction of the cable which had cut through my clothing. In the hospital, later, I was shown a large ripped piece of fur and fabric.

One of the nurses said she thought it was wonderful that I had enough presence of mind when I jumped to wrap something around my hands in order to save them and to be able to hold on to the cable. I know it was not presence of mind or courage. I think the right word is vanity. This was a new muff that I had bought after saving for it many weeks and fire or no fire, something in me made me hold on to it even while I jumped to save my life. I don’t know how long I stayed in St. Vincent’s but when I was well the Red Cross came with my clothing which they got from my family and took me straight to the mountains for a rest. At the same time, the Red Cross paid my family $10 a week for 10 weeks. I never got a dime’s worth of help from the company.

 

Sylvia Kimeldorf

Job: Tucker

8th floor

Interview: July 24, 1957

I remember the day of the fire very well. I was a tucker and I worked on the 8th floor where they had a number of special machines set up and I had just finished my work earlier in the day and I got my pay. I was always in a hurry as a youngster so I ran to the dressing room. I can remember as if it were yesterday that I had just put on my skirt and blouse and that I had my hat on, and that I put my jacket and pocketbook under my arm.

At that moment I heard a commotion in back of me in the shop. I heard loud screaming coming from the other end of the shop. I turned around and I could see the flames at the other end of the shop. I had a very dear girl friend by the name of Feibush and we worked together. She ran into the dressing room and grabbed me and began to pull me to the windows all the time while the fire was spreading quickly through the shop.

At the windows I saw how men grabbed chairs and began to break windows up in front. Somebody was trying to break the glass that was the top half of the door.

My friend was screaming all the time while she pulled me to the window.

The place was filling up with heavy black smoke and we were all choking. I think that the big barrel of oil in the corner was burning.

I was scared and she was pulling me to the window and suddenly I felt I was going in the wrong direction.

I think this thing that saved me was that I always had, even as a child, a great fear of height and I was afraid to go to the windows for that reason. Even now I don’t like high places.

In the crush I was separated from my friend. She jumped to her death.

I guess what really saved my life was my impatience because I wanted to get out a little earlier, and my fear of height.

I ran back to the stairway on the Greene St. Side. Just as I got there with two others, Brown, the machinist, opened the door. The door opened inside and had a snap lock. Somebody grabbed me and another girl and pushed us through the door and hollered that we should run down and not to stop.

I think that the girl right in back of me had her hair singed by flames — that’s how close the fire was to us.

I don’t remember how I got down that narrow staircase but I was cold, wet and hysterical. I was screaming all the time. When we came to the bottom I could not get out of the building. The firemen held us back in the doorway. The bodies were falling all around us and they were afraid to let us go out because we would be killed by the falling bodies.

I stood there with the other girls screaming until the men saw a chance for us to get across and I remember they let me across the street and took me into a Chinese importing house where they tried to quiet me down and gave me milk to drink. I could see through the window how the bodies were still falling and would hit the sidewalk with a bounce.

At that time I lived with my parents in Brooklyn. We had come from Rumania in 1901. I was 18 years old and had gone to work in the garment industry two years earlier and suddenly found that I was in the middle of the big 1909 strike of shirtwaist makers. I remember how I went to sell newspapers to raise money for the strikers.

My cousin, Morris Horowitz took me up to work at Triangle.

When I was able to get out of the store I began to run all the way to Second Street and Avenue “A” where my grandmother lived. My mother in Brooklyn had no telephone and I was afraid she would think something happened to me. My grandma took care of me.

Meanwhile my cousin was frantically looking for me even among the dead bodies.

I never went back to see the building. I didn’t go to the funeral.

I was so sick from shock that I had to be sent away to the country to regain my strength. For weeks and weeks I got sick every time I thought of those girls standing on that ledge or reminded myself of the fire.

The Washington and Greene St. doors were always closed.

Up until the time of the fire I never saw the bosses. We dealt only with the foreman but sometime after the fire I remember I got a letter from the company asking me to come to their office. When I got there I was told that they were opening a new shop and if I had nothing against them I would be welcome to go to work for them.

Before I worked for the Triangle Co. I worked for Winter Co. on Wooster St.

I got paid by Triangle, $10 a week, flat rate, for six days a week, including Saturdays.

They had a real speed-up system so that when they gave you the goods, let’s say 60 yds., they fixed the time it should lake to do the work.

When we left the shop we were searched. We had to open our bags to show what was in them. They even had a matron in the ladies room who would check to see how long you stayed in the ladies’ room and if you had any material on you.

I never heard otherwise from the company. I lost my hat and fur piece in the fire but nobody ever tried to reimburse me for it.

The fire started on the cutting table on the Washington Pl. side. My machine was two rows away and there was no room to walk between the rows of the machines.

I was very lucky that I was in the dressing room when the fire broke out. I could see when I looked back at that time from the dressing room to where the lace runners worked, how the wicker baskets filled with the work, were already burning. I saw men throwing stuff on the fire trying to put it out.

I did not go to the fire escape because I did not know there was a fire escape.

I forget the name of the tall tucker who worked with us. I saw him a couple of weeks after the fire. He was allright but on that day of the fire he almost drowned in the cellar.

 

Isidore and Celia Saltz Pollack (Mr. and Mrs. Pollack)

Celia’s Job: Operator
Isidore: Executive Board member of Local 60 for 15 years

Celia: 8th floor

Interview: July 25, 1957

Celia: I worked at Triangle for about a year before the fire. I started first to work for a contractor in the shop and I made about $3 a week. There were lots of inside contractors in the shop – each one hired his own girls. We did not know the prices for the work, only he did and only he paid us. I worked up from $3 until I was making as much as $10 a week.

About a week after I was working for 6 months, I went to Bernstein who was the manager and I told him I had enough of working for a subcontractor. I told him I wanted to work for myself so he gave me a sample I should sit down and show him what I could do. My work was very good and when Bernstein saw what I could do he said allright you could start to work for yourself. That was when I took up my sister Minnie to work with me. She was only about four months in the country.

I remember I sat near the back door and the elevator. The door was locked. I remember also how on that day there was a lot of singing and happiness in the shop because it was the end of the week and we got paid. We were soon all going to go home.

When the fire started I was sitting at my machine. I looked up and saw the fire near the cutting tables but I did not think it was so terrible. What was terrible was that the fire spread in a split second. The one thing that I thought was that I have to run to the door. I even forgot that I had a sister working with me.

All around me the others were screaming and hollering. The door was locked and I pushed over to the door of the elevator. When the elevator stopped on our floor, I was swept into it by the pushing crowd. I lost my sister and I didn’t know where she was.

When I came outside, I first realized how terrible the fire was. I saw bodies falling all around me. I don’t remember what happened after that. When I came to myself I was in a restaurant and my sister and some other people were sitting around me helping me. Later when I asked my sister how she got out she told me that somebody opened the door lock and that was how she got down. Many from the 8th floor were saved but the elevator came up only once.

I was an operator and I was about 18 years old. Two years earlier I came from Russia.

Bernstein was a short stocky man and he knew how to do his job as manager.

When I began to work for myself I was soon making as much as $20.

The door was always locked. We had to open our pocketbooks when we went home.

I never knew that there was a fire escape.

While all the others were screaming around me I could not say a word. I was so scared all I could do was hold on to my sister. When I got into the street I kept crying for my sister. Even then I could not understand everything that was happening but on the 8th floor I saw death staring me in the face.

I never went back to see the building and nobody ever asked me to come back to work there.

I had a third sister who worked on the 9th floor. A few months before the fire I told her to go away and find another job.

I told her it was no good for all of us to work in one place.

Our machines were very close together.

We worked on bundles of 2, 2 1/2, or 3 dozen blouses. They were very good shirts. When I began to work for myself I joined the backs to the fronts. We also made the tucks on the fronts.

The cutters took up less than half of the floor but we never went near them because somebody would think that we were looking to take something.

I never walked down the staircase. I always used the elevator.

My sister Minnie used to tell us that she climbed over dead people when she was running down the staircase from the fire but how could there be dead people. We used to laugh at her – she was only 14.

**NOTE: Stein explained to the Pollacks that Minnie may have been telling the actual truth inasmuch as she ascended a darkened stair case on which there must have been many fainting and injured women. This was a revelation to the Pollacks after 47 years.

Everything would have been alright if the doors would not have been locked.

A lot of us were very young like children at that time. When the inspectors would come we would hide in the baskets or big boxes. I looked young too and Bernstein would tell me to get up from my machine when the inspectors came.

On the night after the fire I was sick. The whole night people came to knock on our door. I had no mother and I lived with my father and two other sisters. My father was up the whole night to tell people we were alright. For a long time after that I was afraid even to walk in the streets. Finally I did go back to work in another shop. I worked in the industry about 6 years.

Isidore: I saw firemen holding the nets. I saw how some of the bodies falling down were on fire. I marched in the funeral but she stayed away. She (Celia) was nervous for a long time afterwards.

Isidore: As long as I live I will not forget how on May 1 we marched with Winchevsky to the building.

I remember both of us in the 1909 strike.

I worked for Bloom & Newman and we were a lot of strong men in the shop. We picketed at Traingle and many of us were stuck with hat pins.

I was working in a shop on 18th St. and 6th Ave. and somebody came running into the shop and hollered there was a fire in Triangle. We all ran to the fire. I wasn’t even keeping company with her (Celia) but that night I visited her to see if she was alright.

 

Dora Appel Skalka

Job: Blouse Maker

8th floor

Interview: July 31, 1957

I worked at the Triangle Shop for nine weeks before the fire. In all of that time I used the Greene St. elevator and sometimes the other elevator but I never went down by staircase.

I came up to work with my girl friend named Pauline and I worked together with her. I remember on the day of the fire she said to me let’s stop early today and let’s go home earlier. We got paid at a quarter to four and I said why should we lose an hour work but she would not listen. She went home early and left me to work alone. Usually we went home together and what we would usually do was that she would go to the dressing room and pick up my clothes and her own clothes and while she was in the dressing room, I would put both work baskets on the machine tables and our chairs into the baskets. This is the way we had to leave our machines at night. This time because she went home earlier I decided to stop earlier too and because she wasn’t there to get my things. So I went to the dressing room earlier than I usually did. I was at the door of the dressing room and was about to go in when I heard screaming in the back of me.

I turned around and saw that the fire was already burning at the cutting table. My machine was in the first row next to the cutting table and if my girl friend did not go home earlier, I am sure I would have been one of the first victims.

But I was standing at the door of the dressing room with two or three other girls and we ran to the door of the Greene St. staircase. It was closed. All around me there was hollering. In a split second the place filled up with black smoke. I remained at the door. I did not move. I could not holler. I thought to myself at least I want to die by the door.

I don’t remember exactly how it happened but somebody opened the door from the outside. It was either a fireman or policeman who smashed in the door which was always locked. He grabbed us and told us to go down the staircase and he took us down to the 6th floor and left us there. He must have gone back upstairs.

When I finally came downstairs in the lobby they were crying and hysterical but they would not let us out. There were maybe 20 or 30 people in the lobby. Some were crying and hysterical but they would not let us out. When we finally got out of the lobby into the street I could see why – because there, smashed on the sidewalk, were the beautiful faces of those who were my neighbors at the machines. We would not stay there. An around were ambulances, pushcarts, fire engines.

At that time I lived at 149 Broome St. I remember I walked home and I did not know how I was even walking. I remember I came to my house – walked upstairs – went into the apartment and then I went into the bedroom and threw myself across the bed. My girl friend who was my next door neighbor came running into the house and while I was lying on the bed I could hear how she was hysterical asking if I was home. I called to her that “I was in here, don’t cry” and she was with me until 2 or 3 in the morning. We were both crying.

Our family had a friend at that time – Louie Salt – who came into the house and asked for me by my first name and in the mix-up he thought I had not come home. He ran like a crazy man to the morgue to look for my body. He came back in the middle of the night and he could not talk. On Sunday he came back again and when he saw me, we both began to cry again.

I could not work for a long time after that. I remember when I went back to work, I went to work in a shop on Prince St. on the 4th floor. Soon the shop moved to 22nd St. on the 12th floor. It was a good job with nice people but I said to myself I would have to leave the job because every time I looked out the window, I thought I saw smoke coming up and I would stop working and I would sit at my machine like a stone. The foreman would come by and look at me. I had a new friend in that shop who asked me what was the matter at that time and I told her I would have to leave the job and I told her why. My friend said don’t be silly and she took me over to the window and showed me that the smoke was coming from a luncheonette across the street.

I was called before the District Attorney and I was asked if I saw that the door was opened. I know the door was always locked. They never called me again.

I worked in the Bijou Waist Co. until the strike which lasted 5 months. Then I went to work in another place on Grand St. One day my friend said let’s take a newspaper and look for a job. We came to the Triangle shop. We were taken up to the 10th floor and I asked where was the chairlady- I didn’t know they had a strike.

Bernstein, the manager called everbody into one big room. We packed the room and he spoke to one after another and he kept saying “down, down, down” because they were not good enough workers for him. When he came to me and my girl friend, he asked us if we could make a whole waist. I could not make a whole waist but with straight faces we said yes we could. So he took us down to the 8th floor and told the forelady to give the girls some waists to make. The forelady’s name was Lena. When we were finished, Bernstein and Lena looked over our work and they were satisfied. He asked us how much we wanted. In the Bijou we made $7.50 a week so here we asked for $9. Later we were both sorry because we should have asked for $10.

I had to punch a clock and it is true that every time we left the shop we had to show our pocketbooks that we were not stealing anything. The company held back a week’s pay all the time.

My machine faced the cutting table. It was in the first row. I lost my coat and scarf in the fire. I remember that I began to go to the fire escape when I heard screaming. I knew there was a fire escape but then people began to holler that the fire escape had broken down. I wanted to run back into the shop but it got dark from the smoke in a split second.

Those who got to the door first were some who were already lined up at the clock to punch out.

I remember that when I got to the lobby I wasn’t wet from the firemen’s water. The bodies were falling already but not the firemen’s water.

 

To read more:

http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/primary/survivorInterviews/

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