Paying Tribute To the Fire’s Pained Legacy

Failed Rescue: New York’s tallest ladder couldn’t reach the top
floors where fire engulfed Triangle factory workers March 25,1911.
Forward Association
Failed Rescue: New York’s tallest ladder couldn’t reach the top floors where fire engulfed Triangle factory workers March 25,1911.

By Lillian Swanson

Published February 23, 2011, issue of March 04, 2011.
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For a list of events commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, click here.

Piece by piece, the everyday blouses were assembled by hand, crafted in small steps from cuffs to collars, from basting to buttons. In cramped quarters, garment factory workers stitched the seams, fitted the sleeves and attached the lace as hundreds of $3 shirtwaists took form.

In much the same way, many hands are piecing together nearly 120 different events that will unfold across the nation in February and March to commemorate the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. From Boston to San Francisco and a dozen points in between, artists, authors, academics, labor activists, musicians and many more who are passionate about the Triangle fire and its legacy are creating their own tributes. Some of these will highlight the trials of current garment workers overseas, and the battle for union rights in America.

Coalition Leader: Ruth
Sergel at a coalition meeting.
Shulamit Seidler-Feller
Coalition Leader: Ruth Sergel at a coalition meeting.

All will remember a fire that erupted in a bin of fabric scraps on the eighth floor of the former Asch Building, home of the Triangle Waist Company, in New York City’s Greenwich Village, on March 25, 1911, and was extinguished within a half-hour. Most of the 146 victims were young immigrant Jews and Italians, and many were their family’s sole breadwinners. Out of the ashes was born a host of sweeping reforms in labor laws and workplace safety, first in New York state and then across the country.

“All the safety rules are written in blood,” said Mike Voudouris of the New York City Chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers, whose own group was founded in 1911 as a result of the fire. The organization has created a film on the history of fire safety for the centenial.

LaborFest San Francisco has scheduled an evening of music, video and theatrical readings. The Boston Jewish Music Festival and the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring have promised a concert that combines a historical narrative and the Yiddish folk music that emerged from the sweatshops. The Jewish Labor Committee is involved in programs in Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles and has asked New York area rabbis to say Kaddish for the fire’s victims.

The City University of New York Graduate Center is planning a daylong conference. HBO and PBS will debut documentaries on the fire, while others have created an opera, an oratorio, an open archive of fire-related memorabilia and historical exhibits. Panel discussions, poetry readings and performance pieces abound. The Forward has sponsored a poetry contest with a $500 prize, and plans to publish a special section March 16.

In Rehearsal: A new play, ‘Birds on Fire,’ will be presented at
Theater for the New City as part of the Triangle fire centennial.
Courtesy of Theatre for the New City
In Rehearsal: A new play, ‘Birds on Fire,’ will be presented at Theater for the New City as part of the Triangle fire centennial.

Many of the events will draw material from the lives of the workers and from the terrible working conditions: the locked door that blocked escape for some employees; the fire doors that opened inward; the narrow fire escape that collapsed, sending two dozen to their deaths. They will include testimony from the trial as well as the jury’s verdict, acquitting factory owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck of all charges before year-end.

In New York, epicenter of the activity, playwright Barbara Kahn read to herself the list of victims’ names in David Von Drehle’s book, “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” and when she got to the end she saw the word “unidentified” was repeated six times.

“Why would nobody claim them? What could be the story of their lives that would allow this to happen?” she asked.

Thus was born her historical play, “Birds on Fire,” which imagines the lives of four of the nameless immigrants who perished in the blouse factory, including more than 60 who jumped from the windows eight and nine stories above the street. Horrified onlookers described some of them as having hair and clothes on fire.

“They have this terrible choice,” Kahn said. “’How do I choose to die?’”

To make sure all the victims are not forgotten, Ruth Sergel, an artist who leads a loose confederation known as the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, for the eighth year will send platoons of volunteers out onto the sidewalks of New York to write in chalk each victim’s name near where he or she lived.

SweatFree Communities and the International Labor Rights Forum hope to focus attention on the plight of those toiling today in garment sweatshops overseas. They have invited Kalpona Akter and Babul Akter, former garment workers who have been imprisoned in Bangladesh for trying to raise labor and safety standards there, to speak at Triangle events.

“It is where the Triangle Shirtwaist fires are taking place now,” said Bjorn Claeson, executive director of SweatFree Communities.

The biggest commemoration by far is being planned by Workers United in conjunction with the New York City Fire Department and the United Federation of Teachers, a tribute that will be held on March 25, only steps away from the former Triangle factory, now New York University’s Brown Building.

Ed Vargas, a longtime labor organizer who has been involved in planning the Triangle annual memorial ceremony for 32 years, said 10,000 people are expected to line the streets at Washington Square and Washington Place. A Jumbotron will carry out images to those too far from the stage to see, and the event will be streamed live to other cities.

“You can hear all the buzz happening” about the 100th anniversary, he said. “We’ve been hearing from family members of the victims. They’ve been calling and saying, ‘I’m coming, and I’m bringing my grandchildren.’”

The ceremony’s theme, he said, will be to reflect on the “legacy of the victims that changed the rules in America,” to acknowledge the status of current workers’ safety issues and to consider what needs to be done to protect against erosion of these rights.

Though the crowd will be bigger this year, there will be the same solemn ritual that is held every year. The name of each victim will be read and a silver bell will be rung as school children or family members bend to place a white carnation on the sidewalk.

But this year, for the first time, the recently discovered names of the six unknowns will be called out, as well.

A NYC Fire Department truck will park a truck on Greene Street and slowly raise its ladder to the sixth floor, two or three floors shy of where the help was most needed. “It’s a heartbreaker,” Sergel said. “It makes you visualize what happened.” Historians say Ladder Company 20 responded quickly to the fire that day with the tallest ladder in the city at the time, but it was a useless bridge as flames consumed the top three floors of the building.

At the 50th anniversary, David Dubinsky, legendary president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, led the ceremony. At his side was leading reformer Frances Perkins, secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perkins at age 30 was an eyewitness to the fire and later said it was “the day the New Deal began.”

This year, Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United/SEIU, will emcee the proceedings, joined by Hilda L. Solis, U.S. secretary of Labor; New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and actor Danny Glover, a longtime supporter of the labor movement.

One of the lasting tributes from the 100th anniversary will be a new memorial to the Triangle fire. Though Janet Zweig, a public artist, has been chosen, the design and location are yet to be determined.

What is known is that the centennial has spawned an outpouring of desire to remember the fire in ways that are remarkable for their variety.

Sergel, who has gracefully steered the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition from its founding in 2008, was asked what she hoped would result from the commemoration.

“I feel there is a lot of discontent. People are not satisfied with how things are. Not satisfied as workers, women, immigrants and on safety. Things are not as we wish them to be. This is an opportunity, a way for people to speak out in a positive manner.

“We are really here for a common cause, to build ties. Civic participation is a muscle that needs to be exercised. I hope people will realize we really have power, and we can have an impact. My hope through this is that people will feel empowered to act, in whatever ways on whatever they feel passionate about.”

For Kahn, who has had her plays produced at the Theater for the New City every year since 1994, the hope is that her play adds something significant.

“We see the promise of their lives, and what’s been cut short,” she said.

Contact Lillian Swanson at swanson@forward.com


For a list of events commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, click here.


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