Triangle: The Fire That Changed America – David Von Drehle

triangleDuring my first semester at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice many years ago, I attended a class in the field of fire science as part of my graduate degree track.  In the class, we, were required to study one of the deadliest fires in New York City history: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911.  Our professor warned us that the story was deeply disturbing and that the detailed descriptions of the victims would be beyond grisly.  However, he also explained that as part of the basis for a career in fire protection, we needed to understand the life safety code and the stories of how and why fire protection has continued to advance. Today, nearly twenty-three years later, I still recall the fire and its impact on workplace safety.  But I decided to read this book by David Von Drehle to revisit the fire and perhaps learn something I did not know previously.  And what I found within its pages, is a story much longer story than the one I had learned of over two decades ago.  And similar to when I first read about the fire in college, I also felt chills go down my spine this time around.   

The author does not go into the fire right away but takes a slightly different approach in explaining working conditions for garment factory workers, which included a disproportionate amount of women.  Workers’ rights were not as widespread as today and in fact, it was not until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) New Deal policies that the right of private workers to unionize became federal law.  Prior to this, employees in the private sector were often at the mercy of their employers. Working conditions were dire and low wages the norm.  However, workers were not inclined to accept these conditions long term and as we see in the story, they began to resist what they felt were inhumane conditions. Many of the garment workers were European immigrants, some of whom spoke little to no English.  They were easy prey coming off boats arriving in Ellis Island and willing to work for low but steady wages.  Two European entrepreneurs named Max Blanck and Isaac Harris formed the Triangle Waist Company and chose the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building located at 23-29 Washington Place.  Today it is known as the Brown Building and is part of New York University (NYU).  They begin to hire locals, many of them young women whose first language is Yiddish.  The author introduces us to many of them and allows us to learn their stories, some of which contain obscure parts lost to history.  Many of them are younger than twenty-five years of age.  Some are single, others married or engaged but all of them are eager to earn wages to support their families which were sometimes struggling to survive.  On March 25, 1911, their monotonous routine was changed forever after a fire broke out due to a series of events that would be discovered in the wake of the tragedy. 

I must warn readers that the story is very dark and there are no “happy endings”. This case study is about a deadly fire that took the lives of one hundred forty six men and women.  Due to the material contained on each floor, the fire had plenty of fuel and the lack of adequate fire protection only served to accelerate the spread of the flames and smoke.  When the workers realized a fire had started, all hell literally broke loose. Through survivors’ testimonies, we are able to piece the story together and witness the frantic activity that commenced as workers tried desperately to escape what became a deathtrap.  And in the three minutes it took for all of this to take place, New York City and America were changed forever.  However, what we learn following the tragedy is equally as important and regrettable.  Drehle points out some very disturbing facts about the owners and previous incidents that should have served as a major warning of what was to come. And this comment about the fire is beyond sobering: 

The Triangle fire of March 25, 1911, was for ninety years the deadliest workplace disaster in New York history—and the most important. Its significance was not simply the number dead. The 146 deaths at the Triangle Waist Company were sensational, but they were not unusual.

But in a city where politics were controlled by the infamous Tammany Hall and corruption was an open secret, compliance was not always high on anyone’s agenda.  But in the wake of the fire, action was swift and notable figures take center stage such as former New York Governor Al Smith 1873-1944) and Francis Perkins (1880-1965) who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945.  As part of the Factory Investigation Committee, she and her colleagues would embark on mission to reform factories all across America. Their story is included here as well. 

The infamous owners of the company do not escape scrutiny and the author gives a summary of their trial.  Represented by famed trial lawyer Max Steuer (1870-1940) the duo mounts a defense to escape conviction but they would never again achieve the success they had prior to the fire.  And the statements given by survivors, some of which are included in the summary of the trial highlight the negligence by the two as the bosses of the factory.  During the trial, dozens of witnesses were called including a fire chief whose statements about what he witnessed upon arriving at the scene will make readers recoil in shock and disbelief.  The memories they recall are not for the faint at heart. But they are necessary even today to understand why workplace safety is so critical. The trial’s ending is another turn in the story and the efforts of the survivors’ families serve as a last turn at the plate.  As the book concludes, Blanck and Harris fade into obscurity but the fire that occurred  at their factory continues to live on in the annals of American history. 

If you are a New York City history buff you may already know this story.  And if you live in the Big Apple such as myself, you have probably walked past the Asch building hundreds of times without realizing what took place there many years ago.  It was there that the lives and dreams of the new immigrant workers who had recently arrived in America were destroyed and lost.  And for those that did survive, their lives were never the same again.  Today, the conditions learned of in the book would be unheard of and citations would be forthcoming immediately upon discovery.  However in 1911, New York City was a very different place where tenements and slums were prevalent and employee safety was not a pressing concern.  Drehle explains just how widespread tenements were and what their living conditions were like when he remarks: 

In 1909, there were more than one hundred thousand tenement buildings in New York City. About a third of them had no lights in the hallways, so that when a resident visited the common toilet at night it was like walking lampless in a mine. Nearly two hundred thousand rooms had no windows at all, not even to adjoining rooms. A quarter of the families on the Lower East Side lived five or more to a room. They slept on pallets, on chairs, and on doors removed from their hinges. They slept in shifts.

It was from these tenements that many of the garment factory workers came as they sought employment even if it meant risking their lives. And until the fire, very few had a voice in they manner in which they worked.  Sadly, it took a tragedy such as the Shirtwaist Factory to change the way people thought about protecting them and other employees across America.  Some of you who read this will shed tears as you go through the book and that is okay for I too found myself gripped with emotion as the image of the factory floor consumed by fire formed in my mind.  I also felt the sense of grief that consumed family members as they identified their loved ones on the streets of Manhattan that night.  The magnitude of the fire cannot be overstated, this was an event that truly did change American history.  And the hauntingly true is captured here in a book that will satisfy any reader in search of the truth regarding the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. 


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