This past March 25, 2011, marked the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City. Americans and the media especially love major anniversaries, and this one was no exception. If you read newspapers or magazines or watch television, the anniversary could not be escaped. Virtually every media organ had its own coverage, some times more than once. A few days before, The New York Times scooped everyone by presenting its first piece, and on the actual anniversary day, offered a way to teach the event, and evaluate its impact. And Time, still the preeminent weekly newsmagazine, had its own major article.
HBO had its own documentary, with a website link to the United Workers official union Centennial commission’s own website. If you don’t have HBO, you could have watched a similar documentary, often with the same talking heads and the same interviewees of relatives of those who perished in the fire, on PBS, which beat HBO by putting theirs on the air three weeks earlier. Or if you preferred the regular old networks, perhaps you saw the documentary presented by CBS on its program Sunday Morning.
If you prefer to learn about the fire from going to the museum, the New York City Fire Museum presented a special new exhibition, “Remembering Their Prayers,” that opened one day after the anniversary on March 26th and runs through April 23rd. Or you can attend the exhibit at the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Pa. And of course, the Feminist’s Guide to New York City (bet you didn’t know that exists) reminds us of the memorial at Mt. Zion Cemetery in Queens, New York.
The above is the tip of the iceberg, which is apparent if you do a Google search of your own. The story, whatever the source presenting it, is essentially the same. On March 25, 1911, shortly before closing time, 146 young shirtwaist makers and some plant managers and executives, 129 of them women, lost their lives as a fire broke out on the 8th floor, where the women did the sewing. In a few moments, the fire spread to the 9th and 10th floors as well. Workers could not escape, because the one door through which they could have left was locked from the outside — supposedly to prevent workers from stealing material and leaving that way, or as some claimed, to prevent union organizers from coming into the factory floor to try to organize.
When the fire engines arrived, they found that the ladders of that day went only up to the 6th floor of the tall building — the Asch Building now part of NYU’s campus — and hence there was no way for the remaining workers who were trapped to get out. Choosing their own way of death, many leaped from the burning building through the huge windows, plummeting to their death. All of the city was shocked, in much the same way as New Yorkers were who saw what happened at the Twin Towers on 9/11. In one of those eerie coincidences, New York City’s current fire commissioner recalled how he had seen people jump on 9/11, and that his great grandfather was on the scene at Triangle 100 years ago, as a leading fire-fighter there to try and rescue the women.
All of New York City ground to a halt the next few days, and at the funerals of the women, hundreds of thousands lined the street in memorial and protest against the unsafe conditions that led to their deaths.