March 25th marks the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire: a tragedy which left 146 workers dead, most of them young women. The tragedy galvanized the modern labor movement.
The Asch Building — now the "Brown Building" — still stands in New York, where it's now part of NYU. In 1911, the piece-workers — mostly immigrant women — were locked into the building's upper floors. When the fire started at 4:40, they were trapped inside and many chose to leap to their deaths as horrified onlookers watched. (For a full account of the events, read this.)
Here's an eyewitness account of the fire:
I had counted ten. Then my dulled senses began to work automatically. I noticed things that it had not occurred to me before to notice. Little details that the first shock had blinded me to. I looked up to see whether those above watched those who fell. I noticed that they did; they watched them every inch of the way down and probably heard the roaring thuds that we heard.
As I looked up I saw a love affair in the midst of all the horror. A young man helped a girl to the window sill. Then he held her out, deliberately away from the building and let her drop. He seemed cool and calculating. He held out a second girl the same way and let her drop. Then he held out a third girl who did not resist. I noticed that. They were as unresisting as if her were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity. Undoubtedly he saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames, and his was only a terrible chivalry.
Then came the love amid the flames. He brought another girl to the window. Those of us who were looking saw her put her arms about him and kiss him. Then he held her out into space and dropped her. But quick as a flash he was on the window sill himself. His coat fluttered upward-the air filled his trouser legs. I could see that he wore tan shoes and hose. His hat remained on his head.
Thud-dead, thud-dead-together they went into eternity. I saw his face before they covered it.
HBO's Triangle: Remembering the Fire pays tribute to the individual women and men who died that day, bringing to vivid life the human scale of the tragedy. For the first time, six previously anonymous victims of the fire have been identified, and get their due here; the list of victims is now complete for the first time. The documentary also places the tragedy in full context: less than two years before, workers had protested the building's unsafe conditions — and, with no leverage, were ignored. It's generally understood that the events of March 25, 1911 led directly to the imposition worker safety laws and the growth of the ILGWU garment worker's union. But it took this level of horror to galvanize the public.
Events in New York and around the country commemorate the fire: in addition to the documentaries, there are walks, lectures, and — at 4:45, when the first firebell rang — a collective bell-ringing. But the focus is not merely on the tragic historical events: the event's legacy — and relevance — are especially poignant in 2011. In Laura Gary-Smith's words, "This is why we need unions, people." And in a time when most of our clothes are still made in sweatshops around the world, this is a time to remember how little can change in 100 years — and how much it needs to.
Triangle Fire: A Half-Hour of Horror [NY Times]
100 Years Later, the Roll of the Dead in a Factory Fire Is Complete [NY Times]
Remember The Triangle Fire
Remembering The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, 100 Years Later [WNYC]