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113 years later, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory still resonates


Isaac Harris, pictured above in the light suit among Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers, and Max Blanck, to his left, established the Triangle Waist Company in 1900 and moved into the eighth floor of the Asch Building on the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village a year later. The factory would grow into the ninth and 10th floors in subsequent years, its hundreds of workers producing about 1,000 women’s blouses a day. 

Following a spontaneous walkout by the factory’s workers in 1909 and a longer, more widespread strike by garment workers that ended in February 1910, Harris and Blanck would agree to shorter hours and better pay for their workers, but otherwise resisted signing a union contract ratified by most other factory owners. Among the agreement’s provisions were increased improved working conditions and better fire safety. 

Less than a year later, on March 25, 1911, with the 52-hour workweek nearly done for the factory’s 500 garment workers, a fire tore through the eighth floor and leaped to the factory’s ninth and 10th floors. 

Firefighters were on the scene within minutes, but the rigs’ ladders reached only to the sixth floor. Hundreds of workers, along with Harris and Blanck, would escape either to the roof and a neighboring building or to the street via the building’s single workable freight elevator. But 146 of the workers — nearly all of them women, most of them immigrants, many in their early teens —  would perish in the smoke and flames or by jumping to their deaths.

A seven-count grand jury indictment charged Harris and Blanck with manslaughter in the second degree. They were acquitted and would settle civil suits by paying $75 for each life lost.

The tragedy would become a touchstone in the nascent labor movement in New York City and the nation, certainly, but also worldwide. 

More than a century later, the fire’s legacy continues to resonate. In October, after years of effort by a dedicated band of victims’ relatives and descendants, historians and others, a permanent memorial was affixed to the exterior of the building. Consisting of a textured, stainless steel ribbon onto which the names of the 146 fire victims’ names it rests on the building’s southern and eastern facades 12 feet above the sidewalk. 

Nearby, at New York University Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at 24 West 12th St., an exhibition running through March 29 documents the participatory process of the memorial’s design.

And on March 25, on the 113th anniversary of the fire, the annual commemoration of the tragedy with speakers and a ceremonial ladder-raising by the FDNY will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. outside of what is now the Brown Building at Washington Place and Greene Street. 

— Richard Khavkine

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