The Triangle Fire, by Leon Stein

Article excerpt

Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001 (earlier edition, 1962). 224 pp. $15.95.

"We didn't have a chance...the people...saw the fire grow....all of a sudden the fire was all around...." Someone "ran to the Washington Place door and tried to open it, and when it stayed locked she stood there screaming." (Stein, p. 54).

A woman caught sight of her daughter being left behind,...She screamed and struggled to reach out.... But her arms were pinned to her side by the crush. (Stein, p.63)

William Shepherd, the United Press reporter and the only newspaperman on the scene at the height of the tragedy, had found a telephone in a store and...he counted sixty-two falling bodies, less than half the final total. Thud -- dead! Thud -- dead! Thud -- dead! Shepherd began his story...on the Greene Street side "They were jammed into the windows. They were burning to death in the windows. One by one the window jams broke. Down came the bodies in a shower, burning, smoking, flaming bodies...(Stein, pp. 19-20)

These are just a few excerpts of the gripping testimony by observers and survivors of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that took 146 workers' lives. One can't help but reflect on more recent scenes of workers falling to their death from the Twin Towers. As Americans we sat riveted in our seats on and after September 11, 2001, and if we had the stomach for it, we watched the bodies fall from the World Trade Towers, understanding that these humans were choosing to jump rather than burn alive from the balls of fire caused by the two jet airliners that exploded into the towers. While the motives and cause agents were significantly different, indeed, yet both disasters seem, in some measures, of similar proportions. They both caught the country by surprise and ushered in a different climate. In 1911 the perpetrators were Jewish, industrial capitalists, and the victims, mostly young (ages 15-25) Jewish women who were locked in the three top floors of an 10-story Ashe building, with only buckets of water and fire escapes that would too soon collapse when put to use. In the Twin Towers, the perpetrators (not Jewish as it is erroneously believed in major sections of the Arab world) were Muslim terrorists; the victims were working men and women, of all ages, with quite a few recent immigrants, according to the stories told of the victims' families. In 1911, the helpless women also choose to jump to their death rather than burn alive. Yet, too many also died in the factory, some bent over their machines, others left to die during their futile escape, lying on top of the elevators.

Reading the text of this industrial tragedy, Stein asks the reader to go beyond the understanding of human beings in crises and poses some pertinent questions such as, Was there knowledge of the corruption and disregard by those in positions to do something? Were lessons learned? Was anyone found guilty? Were more stringent safety standards enacted and enforced? What sort of protests occurred? Were individuals charged and found guilty? Here Stein offers us his excellent primary research, gleaning through newspapers (the Jewish Daily Forward, International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) Local 25 newspaper and reports, including speeches by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and officers of the Women's Trade Union League, among the many.)

Isaac Harris and Max Blanck were the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. They were known as the shirtwaist kings and made their fortune in selling this feminine apparel, which, in their advertisements, suggested that the shirtwaist symbolized American Women's newfound freedom. How ironic that in most cases those making the shirtwaist could not afford to purchase them on their meager wages. Harris and Blanck were initially indicted on first and second-degree manslaughter (Stein, p. 158) but later acquitted on all charges.

It was reported that there were plenty of abuses, corruption, and collusion between the captains of industry and insurance brokers. …