Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Sunday was the 96th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire in New York where 146 young girls perished behind the locked doors of their sweatshop workroom. They ranged in age from 12 to 23 and were mostly Italian and Eastern European immigrants working 70 hour weeks for $1.50 sewing shirtwaists in cramped conditions. The story of the fire, the worst workplace disaster in New York City history outside of 9/11, is legendary. The fire started on the eighth floor and spread quickly due to the multitude of cotton material, shirtwaists, fabric scraps and paper patterns which filled the workroom. With the doors locked to prevent the girls from taking breaks or leaving early and to keep out union organizers, the girls had no chance of survival. Some died plunging to their deaths in the elevator shaft, some held each other as they leapt to their deaths on the sidewalk below and others were overcome with smoke or burned alive.

The tragedy led to major reforms of not only fire and safety laws but improved working conditions for women, garment and factory workers. Yesterday several dignitaries including Cardinal Edward Egan, City Council Speaker Cathleen Quinn, members of the Fire Department and the New York Department of Labor were on hand at the corner Green Street and Washington Place, the site of the fire, to commemorate the victims.

This story has always resonated with me. Perhaps because my great-grandmother, my Nanny, might have very easily been one of those girls toiling away at a sewing machine in those days. She and her five sisters immigrated from Austro-Hungary just about 100 years ago, teenagers at the time, all of them.

They were the lucky ones who found posts as domestics in fine New York City homes. One sister working as a cook, another a maid and Nanny was just that, a nanny to the young children of a wealthy doctor on Central Park South. She told many stories of New York in those days as a carefree and exciting place. She went to dances with her sisters in Yorkville where she would meet other young German and Eastern European immigrants making their way in a new country. She told of occasions when the doctor would entertain and she would impress him with her baking skills whipping up an apple strudel from a recipe of her mother's carried across the sea in her memory. She eventually met and married a young man from her hometown back in the old country who had also moved to America. The two of them established roots here and started a family.

When I hear the story of the horror those girls in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire suffered, I can't help wonder if Nanny knew any of them. Did they go to those same dances? Did they live on her block in Yorkville? When she heard how they died did she cry? Did she pray for them? Did she realize how easily she could have been one of them?

Certain events in history affect the collective consciousness of not only the city but the whole country. Almost 100 years later New York City is still honoring the victims who gave their lives so that others would never have to suffer a similar fate. But aside from the historical affect the fire had on us, it's the humanity of the story that lingers in one's mind.

Below, next of kin identify the remains of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire victims.

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At 9:50 AM, Blogger Y | O | Y said...

Thanks for this glipse into your personal life. I'm sure your Nanny was brave...brave enough to leave a familiar life to establish something better for herself and her kin. Sounds like she was also smart...smart enough to leave in time to avoid being at ground zero of two world wars.

Let's raise a toast to our Nanny's and thank them for all they did! :)

At 5:36 PM, Blogger Donnie said...

I remember and tell my Building Codes students this story every year. It helped pave the way for standardized building codes in the US. It also resonates with me because my Mom was a seamstress for over 40 years.

At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I first heard about the Triangle Fire when I was a kid at home here in Scotland. We would sing the Ballad of the Triangle fire song from old folk song books, which I always found haunting.

Last year I got to visit NYC for the first time, and of course went to visit the Brown building. It was very chiling recounting the events in my mind while actually standing there. One of those events that transcends time I guess...and really captures the heart. Living history indeed.


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