Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: An Indelible Memory, Etched In Chalk

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published March 24, 2010.

Lectures and performances around New York on March 25 will mark the 99th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, one of the worst workplace disasters in New York City history.

Commemorations begin early in the morning, when names of the 146 victims of the fire — mostly young immigrant women — will be etched in chalk on sidewalks near where they lived.

Trapped behind doors locked by management to prevent theft, 146 people were killed in the notorious 1911 fire. Many jumped to their deaths. Public outrage over the fire helped spur legislation that set higher standards for workplace safety.

While the victims were mostly Jewish and Italian, Ruth Sergel, the founder of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, says that many communities feel a connection to the victims of the fire.

“There’s this natural common ground for it,” Sergel said. “We’ve all experienced being treated as if we’re of no value, and that we could just disappear off the face of the earth.”

Sergel, an artist, also conceived of and organizes the project of chalking the victims names on the pavements near their homes, a practice she initiated in 2004. Forty chalkers will participate this year. Sergel said that 80 to 90% of the victims’ names will be written.

Sergel said that the chalk’s impermanence is the point of the project. “That’s what the force of communal memory is like,” she said. “We don’t pound the door every day and say remember these people, but we hold them in our hearts.”

Rain is forecast for Thursday evening.

The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, which is already busy coordinating plans for the fire’s centennial next year, is previewing works being prepared for 2011 at Judson Memorial Church at 55 Washington Square South at 6:30. Presentations include a puppet opera, a one person play, and a performance by guitarist Marc Ribot.

Workers United, a labor union, will be holding a commemoration at the scene of the fire at 11 am at Greene Street and Washington Place in Manhattan, now a New York University building.

And David Von Drehle, the author of “Triangle: The Fire that Changed America,” is speaking at the Tenement Museum at 6:30.

A more complete list of events is available at rememberthetrianglefire.org



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