The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Still Burns

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire 95 years on. Jonathan Mark of the Jewish Week writes:

The UPI reporter, William Shepherd, was just by chance on the corner of Manhattan’s Washington Place116_1 and Greene Street when on March 25, 1911 flames started licking out of the eighth and ninth floors across the street. He knew the place, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. The year before its workers had gone on strike for better conditions.

Shepherd telephoned his office, where telegraph operators clickity-clacked a dramatic story across America. Shepherd saw, way above him, a young man helping a young woman to the ninth floor windowsill. The young man held her out the window, and let her drop. The man reached back into the flames, held a second girl out the window and then a third, letting them drop. None of the girls resisted, “as if,” reported Shepherd, “he were helping them into a street car instead of into eternity.”

A fourth girl put her arms around that man in the window and kissed him, perhaps impulsively for the first time or simply for the last. Then he held her out of the window and dropped her 100 feet to the sidewalk, quickly jumping after her.

“His coat fluttered upwards,” reported Shepherd, “the air filled his trouser legs as he came down. I could see he wore tan shoes.”

Shepherd wrote, “Later, I saw his face. You could see he was a real man. He had done his best.”

In less than half an hour, 146 people were dead, mostly young Jewish and Italian women. Witnesses said they fell “just like rain,” or like birds shot in the sky. In the street the water from the fire hoses ran red with the blood.

Factoids:

  1. The fire was on Shabbat.
  2. At least one Triangle employee was saved because she kept Shabbat.
  3. Most of the victims were young Jewish and Italian women.
  4. The fire burned for 18 minutes. (Yorah Dayah enthusiasts, any thoughts on this?)
  5. 146 people were killed.

Although I’ve had my political disagreements with him in the past, Jonathan Mark is a wonderful writer. Please read the entire piece. It’s well worth your time.

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1 Comment

Filed under History

One response to “The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Still Burns

  1. C-Girl

    Some other factoids about the fire:

    Both owners of the business, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were Jewish immigrants from Russia. They were subsquently tried for manslaughter but acquitted, then ordered to pay $75 restitution.

    The day of the fire, a Saturday, was a payday.

    There had been several previous fires in the Triangle workrooms, although none had resulted in any injuries. It was believed, although not proven, that the fire of March 25 was caused by the same circumstances as a previous fire.

    There were no sprinklers in the building, although they existed in 1911 but were not required by law. The building, itself, was fireproof and suffered no structural damage at all.

    The fire lasted just under a half an hour, by most accounts (the only flammable contents of the building were cloth and people, and they burned quickly- the building, as I mentioned, was fireproof). 18 minutes is not a universally agreed-upon timespan.

    The fire began less than 10 minutes before closing time. Most of the employees were already in their street clothes waiting for the whistle.

    The 600 people (men and women) who worked there were all recent immigrants- Jewish, German, Italian and Irish, mostly. In many cases, the Jewish girls (some as young as 14!!) were the sole financial supporters of their families and didn’t see any options to working on Shabbos. Reading the “Bintele Brief”, the Forward’s advice column from that era, you can sense the desparation of people wanting to survive and support their families, and their guilt over having to work on Shabbos (for Jewish employers!). I’m uncomfortable with any implication that this was Hashem’s way of flexing his Shabbos-enforcement muscle. This was merely an unfortunate coincidence.

    There are many great resources on the net, including this one:
    http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/

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