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February 18, 2011

Social Alzheimers and the Triangle Factory Fire

There are basic philosophical questions.
For the individual: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the good?
For our society: Who are we? What do we want? How did we get to where we are?

Knowledge of "how we got here" is essential if we're to be capable of discourse and democracy. It's seductive to forget the backstory and react to the thousand immediate stimuli. People with agendas may not want you to remember the backstory. Do we have a national memory? Is it possible that we have "Social Alzheimers"?

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
from Reason and Common Sense, by George Santayana.

There's nothing like a history lesson with first-person reports to help you understand "how we got here", and direct history helps us remember. There are caveats: anecdotes aren't explanations, and all purported truth must be viewed with a critical eye.

Ten Years Ago. It hasn't been too long since the attacks on 9/11/01, and many of us know people who were there, people who can provide first-hand stories of office workers jumping to their deaths with flames at their backs, stories of hurried "I love you" cellphone calls, stories of the tiny variations in circumstance that result in either death or survival. After 9/11, with the memory still fresh, Americans said things like "Never Forget", and "Never Again". Those are related shibboleths; if you don't remember, then you can't prevent repetition.

Sixty Years Ago I knew a man who was a young sailor in Pearl Harbor. He had partied on Saturday night, woke up late and overstayed the expiration of liberty on board his ship. He hurried to a motor launch and persuaded the crew to take him across the bay to his ship, which placed them in the middle of Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. It was a remarkable treasure to hear his report. In the aftermath of the attack Americans said things like, "Remember Pearl Harbor".

How do we make sure that people Never Forget? One method is to build sturdy memorials in the hope that they will survive and pass the message on to future generations, to try and ensure they won't forget. This memorial, Never Again, is outside the fence of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.

The struggle of men against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera (previous post)

One Hundred Years Ago On March 25, 1911 (100 years ago, next month), the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, most of them women, who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Most of the workers could not escape the burning building because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits to keep them from leaving early.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building. Under the ownership of Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the factory produced women's blouses, known as "shirtwaists." The factory normally employed about 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women, who worked nine hours a day on weekdays plus seven hours on Saturdays.

On the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire flared up in a scrap bin under one of the cutters' tables on the eighth floor. The Fire Marshal concluded that the likely cause of the fire was an unextinguished match or cigarette butt in the scrap bin. A New York Times article suggested that the fire may have been started by the engines running the sewing machines. The Insurance Monitor, a leading industry journal, suggested that the epidemic of fires among shirtwaist manufacturers was "fairly saturated with moral hazard." No one suggested arson.

A bookkeeper on the eighth floor warned employees on the tenth floor via telephone, but there was no audible alarm and no way to contact staff on the ninth floor. The floor had a number of exits – two freight elevators, a fire escape, and stairways down to Greene Street and Washington Square – but flames prevented workers from descending the Greene Street stairway and the door to the Washington Square stairway was locked. Dozens of employees escaped by going up the Greene Street stairway to the roof.

Within three minutes, the Greene Street stairway became unusable in both directions. Terrified employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, a flimsy and poorly-anchored iron structure which may have been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling victims onto the concrete pavement over a hundred feet below.

Two elevator operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo, saved many lives by traveling three times up to the ninth floor for passengers. Mortillalo was eventually forced to give up when the rails of his elevator buckled under the heat. Some victims pried the elevator doors open and jumped down the shaft. The weight of their bodies made it impossible for Zito to make another attempt.

As a large crowd of bystanders gathered on the street, sixty-two people died by jumping or falling from the ninth floor. Louis Waldman, later a New York Socialist state assemblyman, described the scene years later:
One Saturday afternoon in March of that year — March 25, to be precise — I was sitting at one of the reading tables in the old Astor Library... It was a raw, unpleasant day and the comfortable reading room seemed a delightful place to spend the remaining few hours until the library closed. I was deeply engrossed in my book when I became aware of fire engines racing past the building. By this time I was sufficiently Americanized to be fascinated by the sound of fire engines. Along with several others in the library, I ran out to see what was happening, and followed crowds of people to the scene of the fire.

A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.

Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.

The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.
The remainder waited until smoke and fire overcame them. The fire department arrived quickly but was unable to stop the flames, as there were no ladders available that could reach beyond the sixth floor. The fallen bodies and falling victims also made it difficult for the fire department to reach the building.

146 people died as a result of the fire. Most victims died of burns, asphyxiation, blunt impact injuries, or a combination of the three.

Almost thirty of the victims were men. The first person to jump was a man, and another man was seen kissing a young woman at the window before they both jumped to their deaths.

The company's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had fled to the building's roof when the fire began and survived. They were later put on trial. The jury acquitted the owners. However, they lost a subsequent civil suit in 1913 and plaintiffs won compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty. In 1913, Max Blanck was once again arrested for locking the door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20.

Rose Schneiderman, a prominent socialist and union activist, gave a speech at the memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911, to an audience largely made up of the members of the Women's Trade Union League. She used the fire as
an argument for factory workers to organize and not rely on the "good people of the public....We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us....I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement."
The State Legislature created its Factory Investigating Committee; the committee's 1915 report helped modernize the state's labor laws. It made New York State "one of the most progressive states in terms of labor reform."

After the Triangle Factory Fire, Americans said: Never Forget. Never Again.

Maybe that's old school, maybe it's not germane any more.

Maybe we've moved beyond that.

Maybe decency prevails over greed.

Twenty Years Ago In 1991, twenty-five people were killed at a non-union factory fire in Hamlet, North Carolina. They died trapped behind locked fire doors.

Now, Today.
Non-union WalMart still locks employees in.

Non-union WinnDixie still locks employees in.

Those damn unions.


Anonymous said...

We forget quickly. 11 died in the gulf but people remember the environmental damage. 29 miners murdered at Upper Big Branch by an employer who got rich while workers died, and then sold the company. The Triangle Factory Fire centennial should be a time to silently walk the streets by candlelight, and wonder what kind of society we all want to live in together.

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