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.

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

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.

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.

Q: I've taken a walking tour of that area of Manhattan and was surprised to discover where the Triangle Fire happened, right in the center of things. The building is right next to Washington Square, near where many rich people lived, correct?

It's a short block east of Washington Square, which was sort of the meeting point between the poor downtown and the wealthier uptown. In those days, Soho and then the Lower East Side were pretty rough, crowded, and very poor tenement areas that were home to lots of new immigrants and factory workers. You had people of all types meeting in Washington Square.

Q. Why is the Triangle fire still important today?

Part of the reason is that the story of the fire speaks to so many groups.

It speaks to women because the majority of the victims were young women, working women, whose activism through their labor union had really begun to speak to the feminist movement of 100 years ago. We think of feminism as being the invention of the 1970s, but really that period at the turn of the century when the campaign to win the vote for women was reaching its peak, a time of enormous feminism, with great interest in the conditions of women in factories.

It speaks to the Jewish American experience. A majority of these workers in garment factories were Jewish women. It speaks to the Italian American experience, the labor movement. And, of course, young people really relate to this story, so many of the victims were teenagers.

Q. The story has a lot of villains. Who are the heroes?

They're first and foremost the workers themselves.

The thing that I've always objected to was the idea that the fire produced important lasting changes because it was so terrible, the spectacle was so awful, that the public's heart was touched.

The reason reform happened was because those workers and their colleagues in the New York factories had begun organizing and had begun voting. They had organized an enormous strike in 1909-1910 and were forming coalitions with wealthy progressive leaders. They were making their issues known. People were organizing and demanding change before [the fire] happened.

Q. What are the lessons of the tragedy for today's world?

The way change happens is not by having the best idea or by making the most emotional appeal. The way lasting change happens is by winning the attention of the vote-counting politicians, working the system. Or as Mother Jones said, organize organize, organize.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor the Monitor's book section.

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