The Quiet Tragedy of Two of the Rescued
Originally published in the Forverts, March 30, 1911
“I wanted to dash back in and warn my girlfriends, but the crush of people pushed me aside and I never saw them again — never saw them again!”
Frantically, Miss Ray Cohen of 224 Delancey Street sobbed these words to the Forverts reporter.
Miss Cohen worked on the ninth floor and saved herself, but her mind is rattled.
It’s as if a smoke-filled haze swims before all she recalls having lived through last Saturday evening, and she’s still standing there calling out to her friends with whom she worked.
“I had a premonition all afternoon that I should get home as fast as possible, leave the shop quickly.
“And as the hands of the clock moved closer to a quarter to five, I got up from my machine, raced over to the bookkeeper’s desk, punched out and headed to the stairs.
“I always left the shop by the stairs, because at that time the elevators were always terribly packed. As I headed to the Greene Street side of the building, friends wondered why I was in such a hurry and asked me to wait for them. I didn’t respond and entered the hallway leading to the stairs. In that split second I heard a cry of ‘Fire!”
I ran down several steps and the smoke battered my face. The entire eighth floor looked like a burning umbrella, not the actual floor itself, but the air was lit with streaming flames.
“I screamed and turned back to look at the ninth floor. I wanted to run back to warn my girlfriends and everybody else that they should save themselves. But I didn’t manage. A mountain of people from the ninth floor enveloped me like a shadow. The crush swept me up within it. I don’t recall anymore as I began screaming unrestrainedly.
“When I got down to the street, I stood powerless by the door awhile. My hands and feet gave out. I was pulled away from there and I suddenly saw burning people falling one after the other. I thought I saw my girlfriends as they fell. I wanted to run over and lift a girl who appeared to be a friend of mine, but a pair of strong hands grabbed me and dragged me off to the side.”
Miss Cohen, who was born in New York, is 21 years old. She was a schoolmate of Becky Ostrovsky, one of the victims of the fire, and they had come to work there together.
“Saturday morning on my way to work, I ran into Becky and we went to work together,” Miss Cohen further elaborated. “We were always friends. Becky would speak from her heart.” And she continued. “We could really talk to each other — oy, this is truly depressing me now!”
And then she told the following:
“Becky had brought a little cake with her for dinner that she asked me to carry, as it was too hot for her.
“I was a bit insulted by this and refused. I felt it would appear I was her servant and she was a wealthy matron. Oy, this is really upsetting me now!”
And at that, Miss Cohen truly became distraught. But as upset as Miss Cohen was, her brother George was even more hysterical, for George had been even more frightened by the fire than his sister. George works one block away from the Triangle shop. Hearing about the fire, he ran down to the street and when he saw that people were throwing themselves out the windows of the ninth floor, he felt certain his sister was dead. He ran from one door of the building to another trying to find his sister. Unable to find her, he went home in despair, arriving in tears. His mother was standing there wailing.
“We’ve lost her! We’ve lost her!” — George wept out loud.
His mother grabbed his hand and led him into the other room where his sister Ray sat there … confused, but alive.
Her brother threw himself on her and the whole house filled with the sounds of crying. These were tears of joy, however.
Good news awaited Becky Shvidler’s father in Russia. The Angel of Death had stretched its hands out toward Becky but was unable to reach her.
Becky Shvidler of 73 East Seventh Street also worked on the ninth floor. She had her coat on already when they started screaming, “Fire! Fire!”
Just as those words could be heard, smoke smothered the shop.
“I proceeded to go over to the door, but a bunch of girls were standing there blocking the way. The inspector, who scrutinizes us lest we steal a button from the shop, was examining their pocketbooks to see if perhaps they hadn’t taken something that didn’t belong to them.
“A few of the girls started yelling at him to let us get past as fast as possible. The inspector did the exact opposite: He thoroughly examined each open purse. By the time I got to the stairs, flames ripped through the ninth floor and the inspector was just beginning to examine the pocketbooks. Freed of the masses pushing wildly on the stairs, I was on the street when I saw the burning bodies flying through the air out of the windows. This was horrifying for me and I fell in a faint.”
Miss Shvidler has few friends in New York. She’s only been in the country for two years. Nonetheless, she’s used to remaining calm in all manner of circumstances.
She’s certain that at least 40 people could have been rescued from the ninth floor if not for the idiotic inspector who insisted on blocking the way and investigating the pocketbooks of the young women, despite the fact that from below came cries of “Fire! Fire!”
Miss Shvidler also stated that in the Triangle shop, every girl had thought about death and a fire while there.
“Nowhere else have I seen the girls think so much about a fire as at this shop,” Miss Shvidler continued. “The place was so narrow that they sat back to back. Many times we thought that when, God forbid, an accident occurs there’s not enough room to quickly back away from the machines. But we never thought about this type of mishap.”
The first thing Miss Shvidler did when she felt more like herself again was to write a letter to her elderly parents in Russia.