Today marks the 100th anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist fire. 146 deaths. Some the result of women jumping out of windows to fall nine stories to the ground instead of being consumed by the fire. Many the outcome of a room filled with fabric scraps and machine grease, and locked doors. Some because of an inadequate and weak fire escape.
I don’t remember when I first learned about this seminal event in history, a catalyst for more workplace laws and protections. High school? Junior high? I know that by the time I started college at NYU, I was excited and saddened the first time I noticed the plaque at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. That this was where the inhumane working conditions – of no bathroom breaks and rooms overcrowded with people, machinery, and fumes – came to the attention of those for whom it was not daily life. That those beyond the poor Jewish and Italian immigrant communities of the East Side recognized the wrong in locking girls and women in a room more than a hundred feet in the air, with no means of escape. That fire trucks needed to be better equipped and buildings needed fire sprinklers . And that this was where tens of women and girls (and some men) lost their lives. In the same building, unfortunately named Brown (generally a nice name and a nice color, but a morbid reminder of a fatal fire), where I now went to class.
It’s only this year that I’ve realized my interest in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire is more than typical. I bring it up and am met with blankness. Even in the case of my very smart and curious brothers, raised by the same parents and having gone to the same schools. So then I’m left to wonder why this long-seated interest? As the version of myself today, with more than half a lifetime interest and in the context of what else I’ve learned about myself, I’d say it’s because of the reforms it brought. I am fascinated by systems and changing those systems and their influence for the greater good.
We still live in a country and world where kids go to work too young, where people work in unsafe conditions, where the poor and the “other” bear the brunt of disease and morbidity. But on that day, amongst the sadness and the tragedy of the lives lost, a thought that brings tears to my eyes despite the century passed, groundwork was laid for good.
I know these 146 people weren’t hoping their deaths would serve some larger purpose. They were hoping the door would unlock. Hoping the elevator was still running, with room to take them. Hoping to continue sending money back to their families back in their home countries. Hoping to marry. Hoping to have children. Hoping to live.
In a way, they do.