New York, NY – A hushed, packed crowd stood in silence outside the Brown Building in Lower Manhattan, at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, on the 108th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
Union representatives, politicians, students, and civic groups, as well as members of the FDNY, including the Emerald Society bagpipe band, and a fire engine positioned just in front of the building, filled the blocked-off streets.
Amongst the crowd were many surviving relatives of those who died in the fire on March 25th, 1911, mostly immigrants and young women, the deadliest fire before 9/11. The young women, working in the factory, were unable to escape when the fire broke out, due to the doors being locked. Factory owners didn’t want the workers to take breaks, but accused the workers of stealing as a justification for the doors being locked. Many of the workers leapt to their deaths to try and escape the flames. When the fire department trucks arrived, the ladders didn’t reach all the way to the top floors of the building, dooming many. The final death count was 146.
Dan Weiner held a large photo of Rosie Weiner, his relative who was 19 years old when she died in the fire. Michele Gee held a photo of Katie Weiner, her great-grandmother, who likewise lost her life on that day. She was 16 years old. “Katie was the last to come out alive,” said Gee. Gee said Katie survived by sliding down an elevator cable.
Suzanne Weltman had an embroidered square that she had made as part of a quilting project to commemorate the victims. It read, “Rose Friedman, 18 years old.” Said Weltman, “I realized that if my grandmother had come to the United States a year earlier she may have died in the fire because she worked in a sweatshop.”
NYU Professor Josh Epstein was also in the crowd and told a chilling story. “My aunt Lena and grandmother Ida worked here. [That morning] my aunt Lena had a bad feeling and they didn’t come to work that day. It was a terrible day,” Professor Epstein said. Today, he actually works in the NYU-owned building.
Michelle Esterman’s great-aunt Yetta Goldstein also died in the fire when she was 20. “She wanted to make one dollar more per week,” said Esterman, “That way she could send back money to her family in the old country, Poland,” she added. “She was one of the women on the ninth floor who jumped to her death. She was going to be married – all that was left of her was the wedding dress hanging in her closet.”
All of the labor leaders and politicians who spoke, including Vinny Alvarez, President of the New York City Central Labor Council, Congressperson Jerry Nadler, and Roberta Riordan, Commissioner of Labor for the State of New York, spoke of how the tragedy led to major reforms and legislation in favor of better working conditions.
Said Nadler, “70 bills were passed for factory safety laws…It shouldn’t take deaths on that scale to create workers’ rights legislation.”
After each speaker, bells were rung as the names of the dead were recited and flowers laid beneath a memorial wreath.