New York, NY – An eerie silence fell over the crowd at Washington Place and Greene Street in New York’s Greenwich Village on the morning of March 23, as the FDNY deployed a ladder up six stories to a window of the Brown Building, once the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. During this symbolic reenactment, there were no cries for help, no flames, no smoke, no bodies hurtling down from the burning building. But 107 years ago, almost to the day, Fire Department ladders were employed to the very same sixth story, and at that time, all the tragedy was real.
Politicians, labor leaders, firefighters, members of many unions, schoolchildren, and actual families of some of the 146 victims of that day, March 25, 1911, came together at the site of the fire, one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history, to remember those lost, talk about what changed as a result, and remind everyone how much work is still to be done to ensure worker safety.
The workers, mostly young immigrant women and girls, lost their lives when the fire began and they found the exits were locked, a common practice at the time allegedly to prevent worker breaks and theft. Fire Department ladders could only extend up to the sixth floor; those on the top three floors above that were trapped. Many threw themselves out of the windows to their deaths in desperation. Standing in front of the building, Rabbi Michael Feinberg of the New York Labor-Religion Coalition gave a blessing, exhorting the crowd to “be of one voice, one heart, and one intention…to mourn and remember the 146 lives that perished here…victims of greed and indifference.”
In contrast, a recurrent theme of the day was how, out of the ashes of unimaginable pain and loss, new victories arose. The awful event galvanized the nation, ushering in sweeping reforms and changes in laws and codes. FDNY Deputy Chief Schiralli said, “It’s still a horrible tragedy 107 years later. But what I’ve learned, is that positive change is born from tragedy.” Building codes were changed, laws regarding fire drills, alarms, escapes, and smoking were altered or instituted for the first time. New York State Commissioner of Labor Roberta Reardon noted that more than 36 state laws were passed on fire safety and working conditions, subsequent to the tragedy.
However, “the battle continues,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. He cited continuing construction worker deaths, while Lynn Fox, president of Workers United, spoke of worldwide incidents where “workers continue to die needlessly,” such as in Bangladesh several years ago. “Mourn the dead but fight like hell for the living,” she said, quoting Mary Harris, also known as “Mother Jones”, the legendary American labor and community organizer.
White carnations were laid on a black cloth in front of the Brown Building to commemorate the victims, along with one red flower for Firefighter Michael Davidson, who had just died in a Harlem fire the night before. Reproductions of contemporary shirtwaists along with victims’ names were held aloft. A bell tolled as each name was read. In some ways reminiscent of the World Trade Center disaster, the same refrain was on the lips of many, “Never again.”