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The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: March 25th, 1911

Today is the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

On March 25th, 1911, a fire broke out on the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a block away from Washington Square Park. Most of the people on that floor got out. They telephoned the 10th floor, but were unable to contact the 9th. There were only two elevators, and an arguably locked door, which surviving workers said was locked (illegally) to prevent theft. The only fire escape collapsed under the weight of the people on it. They all fell. There had been no fire drills, because they would eat up company time, and while fire sprinklers had been invented, they weren't mandatory, so companies would choose to save money and not install them.

Women worked with their chairs back to back, leaving no adequate escape routes. When the fire broke out, they had to climb onto the tables and step over sewing machines while trying to reach the exits.

What this came down to was extreme irresponsibility on the part of the factory owners. Many of the same girls working there had participated in the shirtwaist strike of 1909, where women in search of fair wages and improved working conditions were beaten in the street by police officers and hired thugs. The 146 deaths from this fire could have been prevented, but the number one concern was profits, and in the interests of keeping up with the extreme competition in the garment industry, the owners saw safe working conditions as unnecessary. These owners were never held legally responsible for the deaths of those men and women.

Those girls and the few gentlemen who died in this tragedy did not die in vain. New York's fire codes and unions led the nation after Triangle. The people who died on March 25, 1911 are remembered every year in a visual, vibrant, and moving way at the corner of Greene and Washington. And New York is still trying to make it up to them. The city is still horrified that there were no sprinklers. There was no working fire escape. No exit routes. A locked door. No fire ladders tall enough to reach the ninth floor. No way of saving the girls who were so close that people on the street could see their faces before they jumped.

Every year, they march with one shirtwaist for every person killed in the fire

If you want to learn more, I recommend Cornell's extremely comprehensive site: Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire. Leon Stein also wrote a book called The Triangle Fire, which is excellent. HBO did an amazing documentary called "Remembering the Fire," the trailer for which is here

Leon Stein's book led me to people like the socialite Carola Woerishoffer, and helped me link people like Alva Belmont, who was an extreme supporter of the suffrage movement, to the 1909 strike, as she helped bail out strikers who the police arrested in droves.

People are not expendable. Profits do not surmount their safety. And if people are protesting, maybe you should stop and listen to what they're actually saying.


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