Pedestrians in modern-day New York will find the city's history - that trans- national, infinitely kinked, Manhattan-sized knot of everything and everyone from archaic times to yesterday - clinging neatly to the sides of its buildings on bronze plaques. Though these plaques are often handy, they are also inadequate: tiny accounts of giant events. The plaque version of the Triangle fire, for instance, gives only the barest factual synopsis of the city's deadliest workplace disaster before Sept. 11: locked door, 146 dead, 1911.
In "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America," David Von Drehle unpacks this historical shorthand with appropriate passion and detail.
At its height, the Triangle Company was the largest blouse-making operation in a blouse- obsessed city. Its state-of-the-art factory occupied three floors of a "fireproof" 10-story skyscraper just off Washington Square Park, and its workers, mostly teenage immigrant girls, produced 2,000 garments a day.
One Saturday at the end of work, someone tossed a cigarette into a bin of blouse scraps. The little fire, stoked by the air shaft and finding new fuel everywhere, gutted three floors within 15 minutes. In their rush to escape, the workers exposed all of the factory's extensive safety hazards: The flimsy, narrow fire escape, pointless anyway because it ended over a basement skylight, was blocked in both directions by window shutters and collapsed when a group of women climbed onto it; the single usable door on each floor (the second was kept locked to prevent employee theft) swung inward, so the panicked crowds mobbed it shut; phones failed; the rooftop water tank sputtered; the fire department's tallest ladder was four floors too short.
In the end, almost 100 workers died from jumping or falling; at least 50 died by fire. Von Drehle's minute-by-minute account of all this is vivid, dramatic, and - though I winced several times - never sensationalistic.
"Triangle" offers much more than a precise account of the fire. It chronicles the disaster's buildup and fallout, its social fuel and political ash. The book begins with a dramatic 1909-10 garmentmakers strike in which at least 20,000 workers - led by Marxist, avant-garde, scandalously short-haired girls in neckties - shut down the booming and increasingly exploitative industry by demanding, among other things, a 52-hour work week (a 30-hour reduction).
The Triangle's owners were among the most aggressive strikebreakers, hiring mobsters and gangs of prostitutes to beat the girls up before having them arrested. The high toll of the fire a year later was due partially to the conditions the strikers fought only half-successfully to improve.
Von Drehle argues convincingly that the fire changed America in at least two ways: by improving workplace safety (mandatory fire drills, sprinklers, outward-swinging doors) and by pushing American politics toward "urban liberalism," a type of government that would take workplace safety, along with other issues of social welfare, seriously.
Through a monkish dedication to archival texts (crumbling court transcripts, defunct Lower East Side socialist newspapers) and a novelist's instinct for narrative pace, Von Drehle rescues turn-of-the-century New York from the sepia-toned vagueness of folk memory. He dramatizes its politics, its architecture, and its fads. He particularizes the generic waves of immigrants crowding into its tenement buildings.
In one of the book's best chapters, he expands two dry, official, biographical accounts of Triangle victims ("R.F., 18 years old, dead, union member") into dramatic life stories: one girl fled to America when Mt. Vesuvius buried her village in ash, another when 3,000 Jews in her region were killed by mobs - and both supported their families on meager Triangle wages until they died in the fire. The benefit of this deep background is that when the fire arrives, almost halfway through the book, it's as devastating as it should be: The victims aren't anonymous workers but living, harassed, terrified, hopeful, hard-working women.
Von Drehle has reconstructed with unprecedented care one of the formative events of 20th-century America. He has managed to convert dry research into human drama by making us see how much burned in those flames.
• Samuel Kauffman Anderson is a freelance writer in New York.