Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of New York City.

I must confess: As an ardent supporter of Labor rights, I was unaware of this tragedy until I heard about it on NPR's Morning Edition earlier today.

For those of you too lazy to follow the link above, let me give a brief description: A fire broke out in an NYC garment factory (Shirtwaist is a fancy way to say Woman's blouse) during a Saturday work shift (yes, folks, back then having Saturday off was unheard of).

The factory owners had locked the main exit doors, ostensibly to prevent theft. The exact cause of the fire is not known, but the fire started on the 8th floor of the building. The one fire escape that was open quickly collapsed due to heat from the fire and overcrowding. With no way out, many of the workers leapt to their deaths to escape the flames, while many more were killed by the fire and smoke. Elevator operators in the building saved as many as they could, but the elevators soon became inoperable due to heat damage and to victims jumping into the open shafts. NYFD members could only stand by and watch helplessly as people leaped to their deaths, since their ladders could not reach the engulfed floors. I would imagine the first responders at the World Trade Center knew how they felt that day.

Most of the victims were women, and when I say women I should say girls who were ages 16-24, most of whom were Jewish immigrants from Europe and elsewhere.

It was the worst industrial tragedy in the History of New York City, and one of the worst industrial tragedies in the history of this country. 146 people died, with 71 injured. The factory owners were--of course--acquitted of manslaughter charges thanks to their lawyers, but I am sure they are roasting in hell today, forced to watch for all eternity the people they killed jump from their building time and time again.

Some good came from it, of course. A number of workplace safety laws sprang from this tragedy, and it helped spur the unionization of garment workers.

Why, though, does it always seem to take a tragedy before we work to change something that is unsafe? Are we as a people unable to learn the lessons of history until they have bloodied our noses time and time again?

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