The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city, and one of the deadliest in U.S. history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers – 123 women and 23 men – who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Italian and Jewish immigrant women aged 14 to 23; of the victims whose ages are known, the oldest victim was 43-year-old Providenza Panno, and the youngest were 14-year-olds Kate Leone and Rosaria “Sara” Maltese.
The factory was located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building, at 23–29 Washington Place in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan. The 1901 building still stands today and is known as the Brown Building. It is part of and owned by New York University.
The last time I was in New York, I went to see that building to pay my respects to those who died. I had first read about this tragedy in a book on disasters my mother had gotten me as a present when I was about 12. It included some seriously grisly photos I won’t get into here.
No one knows exactly how the fire started but the doors were locked on the workers so they wouldn’t ‘steal’ from the owners and in any case, the only opened inwards. The fire escapes and elevators were flimsy and many people died trying to get out that way. The hallways to get there were only 33 inches wide. The fire hoses didn’t work.
Because the ‘shirtwaist,’ a blouse-y suit popularized by the Gibson Girl of that day, was made of light cotton, the fabric on the 10th floor lit up like dried kindling. In just minutes, the only way out was out the windows. And since New York City fire ladders only reached to the 7th floor, jumping meant death.
Fireman tried catching the women in canvas, but from that height, most hit the sidewalk and died. Some crashed through the sidewalk into the basement below.
As countless New Yorkers watched in horror, the women and some of the men appeared at the windows, hung on against the flames for as long as they could, and then jumped.
What does that have to do with this blog?
Legend persists to this day of the figure of a man, dressed in tailored clothes, like a supervisor, who appeared at the window. He took the panicked women by the hand, kissed some of them, and then let them go as they jumped. It seemed to those watching below that the man’s demeanor had a calming, almost tranquilizing effect on the women and helped them take the step none of them wanted to.
Imagine the women at the Triangle Fire as the people I know and people who read this blog, listen to the podcast and watch the You Tube channel. When their future become uncertain, they will need someone to help them over the pain of accepting their fate. I want to be that guy on the 10th floor, real or not.
No matter how it goes down and when, it won’t be pleasant. We all need to try and be the ‘hospice worker’ of the person on an Earth that is in hospice, helping people cope as best they can.
And that is what this is all about.
Oh, by the way, in the aftermath of the fire, the factory owners were tried for murder. . .and acquitted. Capitalism must be protected, you know. But a shocked press and public demanded and got, safer, more human working conditions for garment workers. It sped the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) whom you may have heard of.