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Triangle factory fire: why a century-old disaster touches us still

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was the deadliest industrial accident in the history of New York City.

By Randy Dotinga / March 18, 2011

Most of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire were female Jewish immigrants aged 16 to 23.

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The 100th anniversary of New York City's second-deadliest disaster passed without much notice seven years ago, as fairly few people commemorated the day when a steamship sank and more than 1,200 people drowned on their way to a church picnic.

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But another horrific moment from the Big Apple's past is hardly so forgotten.

Next Friday, March 25, will mark a century since the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan killed 146 people, mostly young women (some only children) who were working for a living. Plenty of people are remembering the tragedy: PBS aired a documentary earlier this month, and HBO will show one next week. Poetry readings, art exhibits, and panel discussions will honor the dead and examine the meaning of the disaster and its aftermath.

Why was this event so important? For one thing, because the Triangle fire presents a picture of a changing country, revealing callous carelessness at the top of society and the strength and will at the bottom.

David Von Drehle, now a journalist at Time magazine, captivatingly wrote about the tragedy in 2003's Triangle: The Fire that Changed America. This week, I asked him to explore why we're still moved and engaged by what he calls "one of the great and tragic stories of American history."

Q. What drew you to this story?

I had moved to New York City and found myself living near New York University. I was out walking through the neighborhood and saw a historical marker on a building. I'm the kind of person who stops and reads those things.

I was surprised to discover that the [Triangle fire] building is still standing. It's a classroom building for NYU. I'd pass by that corner frequently, almost every day, and find myself looking up at the windows and trying to imagine what happened.

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