Outside of the Brown Building on Washington Place, union members, city officials and firemen came together on Wednesday to commemorate the 105-year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The fire, which claimed the lives of 146 people, was a watershed moment for the labor movement that led to serious reform victories in New York and nationwide.
Many of the victims of the 1911 fire were young Italian and Jewish immigrant women who worked 12 hours a day for just $15 a week. Their managers met any attempt they made to protest for better working conditions with thugs hired to beat them, imprisonment and political bribery.
On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the factory from a bin of fabric scraps. The building owners had refused to install sprinklers because they wanted to reap the maximum insurance benefits. A few survivors were able to escape via the roof to the adjacent NYU main building, now the Silver building, before the elevator gave out, but most perished either the flames, smoke or jumping to their deaths.
The fire led to the passing of significant safety legislation at the city, state and national level. Each year, the Workers United, in association with Amalgamated Bank and the New York branch of the AFL-CIO, host the commemoration at the site of the fire.
Union leaders including Edgar Romney, Secretary-Treasurer of Worker’s United, spoke at the event, as well as New York State Commissioner of Labor Roberta Reardon and Manhattan Borough President Gale Breuer. They stood on a stage facing Washington Square Park, in front of a crowd of people holding up union signs and shirtwaists attached to bamboo sticks, each displaying the name of a woman who died during the fire.
Chloe Swift, 13, was there in honor of her great-grandmother, Nellie Area. Area, who was not at work during the day of the fire, had immigrated from Tunisia two years prior and was only 16 at the time.
“It’s important for kids to know about the fire. Nobody in my class knew until I did a project on it,” Swift said.
She recalled how one of her classmates cried when she learned that the youngest victim was only 14 and could have been a member of their class.
A third grade class from PS-34 got a head start on learning about the fire. Student Keyon Ventura, sported a fireman’s hat with his classmates in memory of firemen who died during the fire.
“We’re here to celebrate the people who died, to honor them,” Ventura said. Students from the Children’s Workshop School also attended and performed a rendition of “Redemption Song” before the crowd.
Bruce Rosen, who attended the ceremony, said his grandmother Loeb had worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory for a day before quitting due to the poor conditions. He described how NYU faculty and students helped workers on the top floor climb to safety in the main building.
“NYU was heroic that day,” Rosen said. “There was a great loss of life, but it was not for nothing.”
Romney led Wednesday’s event and during his speech said those in attendance should continue remembering the victims as they move toward the future.
“As long as there’s breath in our body and we’re able to walk and to move, we will be there to remember those people and make sure they are not forgotten,” Romney said.
Email Kyle Sturmann at [email protected].