Remembering an American tragedy

Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire
A police officer stands at the Asch Building's 9th floor window. Sewing machines, drive shafts, and other wreckage of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company are piled into the center of the burned room.
Cornell University/Kheel Center

To walk by it now, it's just another building off New York City's Washington Square, part of the Greenwich Village campus of New York University. But from the ashes of a fire that once consumed its top floors, history was made. Michelle Miller offers this remembrance:

It was late in the afternoon on a beautiful spring Saturday - March 25, 1911 - 4:40 p.m., to be exact.

It was nearly quitting time at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York's Greenwich Village, where 500 workers, mostly young Italian and Jewish women and girls, got ready to collect their pay, and go home.

Someone dropped a match, or a cigarette ... and within minutes the factory, which occupied the top three floors of a 10-story building, became an inferno.

Photos: The 1911 Triangle Fire Tragedy

Fire ladders, which reached only 6 floors up, were useless. The fire escape collapsed under the weight of desperate workers trying to escape.

One of the doors, it would be reported, was locked.

Onlookers, out for a weekend stroll in nearby Washington Square Park, watched in horror as women leapt to their deaths from upper-story windows , some crashing through the firemen's nets, others hitting the sidewalk with a sickening thud.

That terrible day 100 years ago was almost a mirror of 9/11, said Michelle Miller.

"In some ways it was," said researcher Michael Hirsch. "The horror of the fire, jumping the way they did. It was more intimate, though. You could look into their faces, see the expression on their face in their last moments, hear them hit the pavement that way."

In the days that followed, family members crowded into a makeshift morgue, trying, sometimes in vain, to identify those they lost among the charred remains.

On that day, says Hirsch, all of New York was united in grief.

"This fire really shook people up," he told Miller. "The city was so guilt-stricken. Everyone knew something was wrong, there was something wrong with that building and that maybe we were somehow responsible. And it led to all these reforms that came after."

The fire led to a 2-year investigation of factory conditions, and laws which would revolutionize the American workplace.

Out of the ashes of the Triangle fire came new safety and fire regulations ... child labor laws ... and workman's compensation.

The outpouring of support for working people galvanized the fledgling American labor movement .

Frances Perkins - who witnessed the horror of that awful day, and went on to become a crusading reformer and FDR's Secretary of Labor - called it "the day the New Deal began."

One hundred years later, there are tributes and remembrances of all kinds - even as the country is locked in ferocious debate about the value of unions today, and the need for regulation.

Hirsch, co-producer of an HBO documentary on the Triangle Fire, said, "I thought it was important to remind people about why we made the changes we did along the way."

He showed Miller the union monument to the Triangle.

But he worries that memories of that day and its repercussions are fading - like the names on graves at Mt. Zion cemetery in Queens.

"It's getting hard to read even the large inscriptions on here," Hirsch said.

Like Celia Giltin's. "You used to be able to read this," Hirsch said. "You could clearly see '17 years old' on this. But it's just melting away. And in a way it's almost a metaphor for the way we're forgetting these people and what they did for us."

For the last five years, Hirsch has made it his mission - his obsession, really - to find the names of all 146 people who died in the fire that day, and their stories, and to care for their graves, and their memories.

"I just felt I owed it to them somehow," Hirsch said. "They lost everything. For them to lose their names as well, that just seemed wrong."

Some of the Triangle fire's victims family members don't even know. "Often I'm bringing them for the first time, this news, believe it or not," said Hirsch.

Erica Lansner didn't even know her great aunt's name, until she got a call from Hirsch.

"I always remember my dad telling us that he had an aunt who died in the fire, but that is all I remember," Lantzer said.

Almost a century after the fact, Erica Lansner discovered that her 21-year-old aunt, Fanny Lansner, was a hero that day, saving the lives of many of her coworkers, before jumping to her own death.

"Just to think of a 21-year-old, knowing that she had minutes to live and chose to put others ahead of herself is just extraordinary," Erica said. "I feel actually quite proud to be her descendant."

Artist Elizabeth Wilson recalls her father telling her, "Grandpop's brother Joseph died in the fire."

The 100th anniversary is a chance to learn about her uncle, Joseph Wilson, and his fiancé, Rosie Solomon, who identified Joseph by his pocket watch.

"She asked the attendant about the pocket watch, they opened it up, and there was her picture, staring," Elizabeth said. "I kind of just felt this heaviness like, oh ...'Cause you realize the pain."

Essie Bernstein also died in the fire. She was a relative of factory owner Max Blancke, who (along with his partner Isaac Harris) has gone down in history as the man who locked the factory doors - some say to keep out union organizers after a bitter strike.

Their acquittal by a jury caused outrage then, and still rankles today.

"They're not saints, Harris and Blancke," said Hitrsch. "There was a lot wrong with that factory."

In truth, though, said Hirsch, the Blancke family suffered, too. "The Blancke family lost more people in the Triangle that any other family. No one really knows this. It's just been kept out of the histories," Hirsch said. "You start to humanize these people and start to tell their stories differently."

Susan Harris, the granddaughter of Max Blancke, said it's important to remember and honor the victims. Growing up, she says, she knew nothing of the Triangle Fire. Her family moved to California, and changed the spelling of their name. When she was a teenager, she came across a book, and a name that looked familiar ...

"I remember turning to my mom , and I said, 'Was this Max Blancke, was this my grandfather?' And she said, 'Yes, but that happened a long time ago. You don't have to worry about that.'

"It wasn't something that people wanted to talk about. It was too painful," she said.

Susan Harris has spent the last five years remembering the fire, and its victims ... by stitching the names of the dead, including her own relatives, onto pieces of old shirtwaist fabric and handkerchiefs.

"The reason I used the shirtwaist pieces is obvious," said Harris, "because of the waist factory. And the reason I use the handkerchiefs is because of the loss and the grief."

She calls the pieces prayer flags.

"So many people, they blame your family for what happened," said Miller.

"Yes, I know," said Harris. "And I think that if I had lost my children in a fire, I would've wanted to blame someone as well. I think that's human nature; you want to vilify someone who's hurt you so badly."

So many lives cut short that day. So many families broken. So many memories, lost and found, and so much pain.

But also stories of courage and triumph. And that, says Michael Hirsch, is worth remembering.

"These people didn't set out to be heroes," said Hirsch. "They weren't like soldiers on the battlefield, running up the beach, knowing that you might die. They wanted what we all want. They wanted to have a successful life here. They wanted to be Americans.

"And their sacrifice - that terrible death - is the thing that really motivated people to start thinking about doing things differently in this country. So in a way, they are kind of heroes. I look at it that way."

When Miller asked Harris what she felt was the legacy of the fire, Harris replied, "We need to remember that we as a people who live on this planet need to care for one another, and really respect one another.

"I hope that people will never forget."

For more info:
Michael Hirsch's documentary, "Triangle: Remembering the Fire," will premiere on HBO on March 21 at 9 p.m. ET.
Susan Harris' exhibit, and other art works and paintings in memory of the Triangle Fire, will be on display through April 23 at The New York City Fire Museum
Many thanks to NYU's Grey Art Gallery for supplying images from their exhibit, "Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire," on view through Saturday, March 26. It will reopen on April 12 and remain on view through July 9.