It’s been 112 years, but several hundred people gathered on the corner of Washington and Greene Streets in Greenwich Village to make sure the 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were not forgotten.
It marked the first in-person commemoration since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the gathering to go remote.
“I’ve been coming every year since I was in college,” said Kimberly Schiller who brought her daugther Anna Lee and held a banner in the form of shirtwaist with the name of one of the victims, Lucia Maltese. Lucia’s sister Rosario, 14, and her mother Caterina, 42, also died. “Her sister was one of the youngest victims and her mother was one of the oldest,” said Schiller.
Of the 146 who died, only 17 were men. Most of the male executives on the tenth floor heard the alarm early near quitting time and made it out safely. The women on the eighth and ninth floors, many of whom hailed from Sicily or Eastern Europe, were stitching the billowy upscale garments that were all the rage for fashionable women at the time. They had no advance warning of the smoldering fire that would soon turn into a raging inferno, with the flames fed by the very material they were stitching into upscale garments. The door to one stairway were bolted shut, trapping anyone who tried to get out that way. There was also a fire escape, but the overloaded escape and its rusted bolts broke away from the building and plunged to the ground, killing those on it who were trying to flee.
At one point, the fire brigade showed up, but they were powerless to do anything. While the building codes at the time allowed landlords to build higher than six floors, the fire department only had ladders that could reach up to the sixth floor. Within a half hour of the blaze erupting, all 146 were dead either burned alive or from leaping to their deaths or crashing to the ground when the fire escape collapsed.
The FDNY from modern day Ladder 20 on Lafayette Street raised its automated ladder to the sixth floor, letting onlookers physically see the problem from back in the day at the very building which still stands.
FDNY chief inspector Jesus Rodriguez said the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is still spoken about by instructors at the Fire Academy. “The times may have changed, but our mission has not,” he said. “Don’t just see the building, see the people.” One of the many changes to come about in the aftermath of the tragedy was enhanced fire safety inspection laws when politicians finally were moved to enact the fire laws that many advocates had been pushing before the conflagration.
NYS Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon said that a year before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, 20,000 women had gone on strike for months, but the owners of the garment factories had lobbied against reforms, many of which would have prevented many of the deaths, and attacked the trade unions.
Blanck and Harris, the owners of the factory, were put on trial for manslaughter for the deaths of the 146 people. However, they were acquitted of all charges. One rationale for locking all the doors from the outside was because owners said they worried the workers would steal material. They fled without unlocking them.
“This was not just a scene of loss,” said Manhattan borough president Mark Levine. “It was a crime scene,” he said. “The bosses created deeply exploitative conditions...and they locked the doors.”
But he noted that the tragedy ushered in lots of new labor and fire safety laws. “This was a landmark in the history of American labor,” Levine said. “There are workers still fighting to organize, including hear at NYU” he said. The building now houses NYU offices and classrooms but the exterior appears much as it did in 1911. While Levine said there was never a memorial with the names of all 146 victims, he said that oversight will be corrected in October when a plaque with all the names of the victims is unveiled on the site.
City Councilman Chris Marte used the occasion to try to fire up support for today’s domestic health care workers. “Don’t just think of this as a nice ceremony and you’ll be back next year. What are you going to do tomorrow?” He said his own mother was a home attendant who worked 24-hour shifts, and that he is lobbying to end that practice. “We have to change the law to end this inhuman practice,” he said.
The fire is now seen as one of the most ghastly moments in industrial history, and serves as a reminder of the horrors that can occur when worker protections are not ensured. The tragedy is compounded by the knowledge that the deaths of these women were entirely preventable, had the factory owners taken precautions and maintained safe working conditions.
One elevator operator, an Italian immigrant named Joe Vito, had made 18 trips up to the ninth floor before the elevator cable broke down. Vito found himself temporarily arrested when he emerged for the last time from the choking inferno, but he was soon ordered to be uncuffed.
The incident became a turning point for the labor movement in the United States. The women who perished in the fire are now seen as martyrs and their deaths spurred change in New York and beyond.
”Let us remember the lessons that we learned here,” said Vinny Alvorez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council. “It was a defining moment. But work place protection can never be passive.
He continued, “All working people mourn for the dead, and we commit ourselves to once again fight for the dignity and safety of all workers.”
As the politicians and labor and Jewish leaders spoke, each mentioned several names of those who perished that day and a bell tolled until all the names were read aloud. The speakers and many bystanders all laid white roses at the base of the building where they died. A somber FDNY fire bell tolled each time the name of a victim was mentioned.
Written in chalk beneath the white roses at the foot of the building on the corner of Washington and Greene Streets where the Triangle Factory building still stands was a sign. “Pray for the Dead. Fight for the Living.”
“This is not just a place of loss. It was a crime scene. The bosses created deeply exploitative conditions...and they locked the doors.” Manhattan Borough president Mark Levine