My daughter just finished learning in school about the tragic fire that occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village a hundred years ago today. The building employed about 500 young, mostly immigrant garment workers. These low-paid young people often worked six-days-a-week, creating the then popular women’s blouses that buttoned down to the waist called shirtwaists. When a fire broke out on the 8th floor, there was no way the employees could warn workers on the higher floors of the fire. Consequently, people panicked as the fire spread. Some people were burned alive and many jumped out of the windows to their deaths. In total, 146 people were killed that day and most of them were young teenagers. The fire is believed to have been caused by a dropped cigarette or match.
Today, Americans work and go to school in much safer conditions as a direct result of this gruesome and horrific tragedy. Kids and adults regularly participate in mandated fire safety precautions and drills. Like other skyscrapers, at my former job, we had a member of the F.D.N.Y. visit our office a few times a year to go over safety strategies and outline our building’s specific escape routes and alarm systems.
At my children’s school, like most other schools in our country, the children take part in fire drills several times throughout the year, not just once or twice, but probably about ten to fifteen times. Every year, kids in our country learn about fire safety, not to block fire exits and how to stop, drop, and roll. As parents, we are urged to change the fire alarms batteries in our home twice a year during Daylight Savings Time. Many large buildings today have fire safety walls that have been constructed to slow the spread of fire from one side to the other, and a sound alarm system that is tested regularly.
These fire regulations and safety programs came about after people protested the tragic events of that day. President Obama recognized the impact of today’s commemoration:
“The Triangle factory fire was a galvanizing moment, calling American leaders to reexamine their approach to workplace conditions and the purpose of unions. The fire awakened the conscience of our Nation, inspiring sweeping improvements to safety regulations both in New York and across the United States.”
It’s not surprising that many labor unions are commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire today as they struggle to improve and better their own working situations.
If you’d like to learn more about this or watch with your older kids, HBO is airing a documentary tonight (6:30pm Eastern time), “Triangle: Remembering the Fire”. Made by Emmy award-winning filmmakers, Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson, the film blends photographs and accounts from descendents of victims.