Triangle Shirtwaist Women, 1911

Triangle Shirtwaist Women, 1911

Remembering the immigrant women who died in the fire

One hundred years ago today, a fire broke out on one floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City at about 4:45 p.m. It was a Saturday, but the factory workers worked six days a week; they were close to finishing for the day, and one has to think that the young women were all looking forward to whatever they had planned for Saturday evening.

The factory was located on the seventh, eighth, and ninth floors of what was then called the Asch Building (just a block from Washington Square Park), and there were no sprinklers, no fire alarms that were sounded, and only one door was unlocked… The machinery on which the women sewed shirtwaists was packed in on each floor meaning that when the women did become aware of the fire, it was difficult to make their way to the one unlocked door or to the elevator.

Fire trucks arrived within moments of being notified about the fire but the fire ladders reached only to the sixth floor. There was no way to rescue workers from the windows, and the water from the fire hose reached only to the seventh floor so there was little hope of extinguishing the fire.

Within 18 minutes, the fire had gutted the factory floors of the building, and 146 people died—129 of them were women, some victims were as young as 14. Almost all were Jewish or Italian immigrants who were new to the country, just trying to create better lives for themselves and their families.

Tragedies are tragedies. But after the sadness, one hopes that those who survive find public sentiment on their side and that all work together to seize the moment and urge change. This certainly happened with the Triangle Fire. The fledgling International Ladies Garment Workers Union gained strength, and another important group—the American Society of Safety Engineers—was started in 1911, to oversee safe working conditions.

Today in New York, outside what is now called the Brown Building at NYU, there will be a ceremony to commemorate the victims of the Triangle fire.

But you don’t have to be in New York to share in commemorating these workers. At 4:45 EDT, people all over the country will be ringing bells in memory of these people. Remember the Triangle Coalition has heard from people all over who have written about their own form of bell ringing. One policeman plans to stand by his car and run his siren; many churches plan to ring bells at that time. You don’t even need a bell to participate. If you simply take a minute at some point today and think about not just the Triangle workers—but any workers who died on the job.

People live in America because it is a great country, but it is only a great country when people can go to jobs where they are safe. (We think of the BP oil spill in 2010 but forget that eleven people died on the job when that rig exploded.) Our public agenda for 2011 should be a call for safety in the workplace.

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