Remembering the Triangle Fire, 100 Years Later

By Alice Thompson, a Winter/Spring 2011 Education Fund intern.

Today my fellow intern, Brianna, and I were lucky enough to be invited to the Center for American Progress’ 100th anniversary commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, one of the worst workplace disasters in American history. The event featured a showing of the HBO documentary, “Triangle: Remembering the Fire” as well as a panel discussion on the fire’s lasting implications. While we were initially attracted by the prospect of free food and the opportunity to watch a movie in the middle of the day, no sooner had we grabbed our tuna salad sandwiches than we were drawn in by the event’s tragic circumstances and inspired by the political mobilization that occurred in its wake.

The circumstances of the fire itself are almost unconscionable in the modern day. In the fire, 146 young women, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, were either burnt or leapt out of windows to their deaths. The factory in which the fire occurred had no sprinklers or emergency exits, and the staircases were a mere two feet wide, although at least 1000 workers were on the top three floors at any given time. Perhaps most mortifying of all, the door through which dozens of workers could have escaped and saved their lives, had been locked to make sure they did not leave without approval. The city’s fire marshal had previously warned the owners of the factory about the disastrous consequences that would result should a fire occur, but received no response. Fire prevention safety measures were seen as a costly and unnecessary interruption to the work day, and businessman, such as the owners of the Triangle Factory, were willing to take the risk of disaster, perhaps because they understood that it was not their own lives they were risking. The owners were there the day of the fire, on the top floor, but managed to escape through the roof. One hundred and forty-six workers were not so lucky.

What I found most appalling about the story was just how little has changed. In the early 1900s, big businesses and groups like the Manufacturer’s Association were adamant about how burdensome regulations requiring sprinklers or fire exits or work day limits would be to a company by straining resources and limiting job creation. Today, we hear similar arguments from business that are seeking to avoid being regulated by government.

While the fight for change often proves frustrating, and at times seems impossible, we must remember that it is wrong to think that the Triangle Fire, or any other disaster, could alone create the change we seek. Instead, it was perseverance over a long period of time that ensured rights for workers, women, immigrants, minorities, and those with disabilities. Above all, we must remember that the road to progress has never been easy, and in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”