Triangle Fire:The Tragedy That Goes On

Not long ago a JSG meeting heard from Bangladeshi garment workers' union delegates, touring to raise awareness among trades unionists and consumers. Like the East End sweatshops of yesteryear, Asian garment factories supply the West End stores. But exploitation is not all that links our histories. Each new factory disaster in which workers are killed reminds us of what befell jewish and other immigrant workers in New York, one day in 1911.

Rose Friedman died in Los Angeles on February 16,2001, aged 107, the last survivor of a tragedy that lives in the memory of working people in America. As a young girl Rose worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company’s factory in New York. The shirtwaist, a blouse to go with a skirt, was essential fashion for ‘free’ 20th century women, going to work in office or factory. The Triangle factory fire symbolised their slavery.

It was late on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911. Workers at the factory, on the top floors of the Asch building, were getting ready to go home. Within minutes fire swept through the floors. Before it was over, 146 of the 500 employees were dead.

Bodies on the Sidewalk

Many Triangle workers were young women from Jewish and Italian immigrant families, some still in their teens, struggling to survive in a strange country, battling slum conditions and ruthless exploitation. Jobs at the factory offered regular work - sometimes from seven in the morning till nine at night, with no overtime pay. Some workers had joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, but Triangle was not a union shop. It was hard organising when you were desperate to keep your job. to help your family. A shirtwaist workers strike in 1909 was beaten. Employers hired thugs to attack pickets. Strikers were sacked and replaced by newcomers. The union's unsuccessful demands had included adequate fire and safety precautions. New York employers held a meeting on Wall Street to block city fire legislation.

The Triangle factory’s one fire escape, in an inner yard, buckled and twisted under the weight of those who managed to reach it. Others struggled through narrow aisles between machines, amid blazing cloth, only to be trapped and burned behind locked doors. Many leapt desperately from ninth-floor windows, and died on the sidewalk. Firefighters stretched out a safety net, but two women crashed through it. The firefighters’ ladders could not reach the top floors, nor could the water from their hoses.

Eye-witness William Shepherd would always remember the thud as people hit the pavement. He saw a young man at the window help three young women out.

‘They were as unresisting as if he were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity. Undoubtedly he saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames, and his was only a terrible chivalry. Then came the love amid the flames. He brought another girl to the window. Those of us who were looking saw her put her arms about him and kiss him. Then he held her out into space and dropped her. But quick as a flash he was on the windowsill himself. His coat fluttered upward - the air filled his trouser legs. I could see that he wore tan shoes and hose. His hat remained on his head. Thud-dead, thud-dead- together they went into eternity. I saw his face before they covered it. You could see in it that he was a real man.  He had done his best.

We found out later that, in the room in which he stood, many girls were being burned to death by the flames and were screaming in an inferno of flame and heat. He chose the easiest way and was brave enough to even help the girl he loved to a quicker death, after she had given him a goodbye kiss. He leaped with an energy as if to arrive first in that mysterious land of eternity, but her thud - dead came first.

The firemen raised the longest ladder. It reached only to the sixth floor. I saw the last girl jump at it and miss it. And then the faces disappeared from the window. But now the crowd was enormous, though all this had occurred in less than seven minutes, the start of the fire and the thuds and deaths.

I heard screams around the corner and hurried there. What I had seen before was not so terrible as what had followed. Up in the [ninth] floor girls were burning to death before our very eyes. They were jammed in the windows. No one was lucky enough to be able to jump, it seemed. But, one by one, the jams broke. Down came the bodies in a shower, burning, smoking-flaming bodies, with dishevelled hair trailing upward. They had fought each other to die by jumping instead of by fire. On the sidewalk lay heaps of broken bodies. A policeman later went about with tags, which he fastened with wires to the wrists of the dead girls, numbering each with a lead pencil, and I saw him fasten tag no. 54 to the wrist of a girl who wore an engagement ring. A fireman who came downstairs from the building told me that there were at least 50 bodies in the big room on the seventh floor.

Another fireman told me that more girls had jumped down an air shaft in the rear of the building. I went back there, into the narrow court, and saw a heap of dead girls... The floods of water from the firemen's hose that ran into the gutter were actually stained red with blood. I looked upon the heap of dead bodies and I remembered these girls were the shirtwaist makers. I remembered their great strike of last year in which these same girls had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies were the answer’.

Some workers did escape down the stairs before the flames spread, or across the roof to the neighbouring building. Survivors were dazed, shocked, and traumatised. They suffered nightmares for years. In the weeks after the blaze, people tried to identify charred bodies at the morgue, and the ILGWU worked with the Red Cross to trace families, local 25 draped its headquarters in black, and proposed an official day of mourning. Hundreds of thousands marched in a dignified funeral procession, in teeming rain. Victims’ families urged the union to seek prosecution of the factory owners.

The Triangle Company offered to pay one week's wages to the families of the dead girls- ‘as though it were summer and they are giving them a vacation!’, workers commented. Three days after the fire an advert appeared in the trade papers:

NOTICE, THE TRIANGLE WAIST CO. beg to notify their customers that they are in good working order. HEADQUARTERS now at 9-11 University Place.

The day after they had moved in to the new premises the New York City building department found 9-11 University Place was not fireproof, and access to the one fire escape was obstructed by two rows of sewing machines.

On April 2,1911, Rose Schneiderman, one of the leaders of the 1909 strike, told a memorial meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House:

    I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high- powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.

    This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.

    We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us. Public officials have only words of warning to us - warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

    I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

Eight months after the fire a jury acquitted Blanck and Harris, the factory owners, of any wrongdoing. Trade unions continued fighting for better conditions and fire safety, winning legislation. But around the world, lives remain cheap, and property sacred.

May 10,1993: fire at the Kader toy factory near Bangkok, Thailand. kills 187 people, injures 500, mostly young girls. Doors at the factory were locked to stop them stealing dolls.

November 25, 2000  Garment Workers Die After Being Locked in Burning Factory.

At least 45 workers including 10 children burned to death in a devastating fire at Sagar Chowdhury garment factory on Dhaka-Sylhet highway in Bangladesh....sparked from electrical short soon engulfed the entire building...

December 14, 2010, (Guardian)

Dozens of workers jumped to their deaths and more than 100 were injured when a fire swept through a Bangladeshi factory that makes clothes for high street retailer Gap today.

Witnesses said the blaze – at the factory just outside Dhaka – engulfed the multistorey building, forcing some of those trapped inside to leap from the windows. The fire comes after repeated warnings about fire safety at factories making clothes for western retailers.

The struggle goes on.

Posted: 6 July 2014