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100th Anniversary of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire happened 100 years ago today.  One-hundred and forty-six garment workers died in the industrial disaster, burning or leaping to their deaths.  The factory was a groundbreaking event in workers’ rights in the United States.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Company owned the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village, on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, now owned by NYU.  The company employed about 500 workers, most of whom were young, Italian and Jewish female immigrants.  As the great-granddaughters of immigrant workers in the garment district, we’ve always held this story near and dear to our hearts.  The women typically worked 9-hour days Monday through Friday, and then 7 hours on Saturdays.  An emergency staircase became blocked by flames, and workers tried to exit the building down the fire escape, but the flimsy structure became weak from the heat of the fire and collapsed, sending dozens of workers to their deaths on the pavement, 100 ft. below.  The fire department couldn’t put out the blaze, and didn’t have ladders that stretched beyond six floors, making it nearly impossible to rescue victims still trapped in the factory.  Others decided to leap instead of burning to death, which also made it difficult for firemen to approach the building.  While arson was ruled out, the fire is believed to have started in a scrap bin.  Rumors of the cause range from a lit match, burning cigarette and even the engines running the sewing machines, but still remain inconclusive.  Factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were indicted for manslaughter, as they had locked the doors to the factory (a practice they often used on their employees to prevent them from leaving during work hours), but on this fateful day determined that many workers would become trapped in the flames.  They were acquitted in less than two hours.  Blanck and Harris’s fines amounted to less than the amount they received from their insurance company for the fire.  Disgusted and outraged, union organizers from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) began to protest and argue for a change in workers’ rights.  As a result of the tragedy, the NY State Legislature created the NY State Factory Investigating Committee, and their findings in a 1915 report helped change New York State labor laws.  The American Society of of Safety Engineers was also founded several months after the accident.  The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Gotham Center, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Bowery Poetry Club and others have created the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition in honor of the event’s centennial.  They will be holding memorials, discussions and artistic tributes throughout the day.  Although it happened a century ago, this tragedy is a good reminder of the importance of responsible treatment of factory workers in the fashion industry.  While these practices are nearly nonexistent in the US, this is still a crime that repeatedly happens in Third World countries, when companies are looking for outlets of cheap labor.  Today, church and firehouse bells across NYC will ring at 4:45 pm, the time when the fire started 100 years ago to commemorate the factory girls.  It’s a good a time as any to remember lives lost in pursuit of corrupt businesses.

Triangle Shirtwaist Victims Displayed in their Coffins

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