Volume 80, Number 42 | March 17 - 23, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

During the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, firefighters shot water up to the building’s highest floors, top, but ladders only reached the sixth story, forcing workers either to perish in the inferno or leap to their death. Above, the building after the fire.

Thousands will mark Triangle factory fire 100th anniversary

By Albert Amateau

On Saturday afternoon near closing time on March 25, 1911, a fire flared up in a scrap bin on the eighth floor of the Asch Building on the corner of Washington Place and Greene St. where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory employed about 500 young workers on the top three floors.

Within a half-hour, the fire raged through the lint-laden eighth, ninth and 10th floors where 146 workers, mostly Jewish and Italian girls from immigrant families, lost their lives either in the fire or on the pavement below where 62 of them jumped to escape the inferno.

The door to the Washington Place stairway was locked; the single exterior fire escape soon collapsed from heat and excess weight, spilling victims to the pavement 100 feet below. The Fire Department’s ladder reached only to the sixth floor.

On Fri., March 25, 2011, the 100th anniversary of the fire, Washington Place between Washington Square East and Broadway will be crowded with an expected 10,000 people commemorating the tragedy that sparked epochal changes in laws regarding safety and working conditions.

Organized by the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, along with Workers United — the labor union that evolved from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union — a procession will begin at 9:30 a.m. at Union Square.

Members of the families of Triangle fire victims, labor unions, theater and dance companies, students and others will start at 10:30 a.m. with shirtwaists (standard women’s blouses of the early 20th century) and sashes and signs bearing the names of the 146 victims held aloft. The procession will arrive at the site of the fire, now New York University’s Brown Building, at 11:30 a.m.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis will be among the speakers at the ceremony, where schoolchildren will read the names of all 146 victims and lay flowers at the site of the fire. During the ceremony, a New York Fire Department fire truck on Greene St. will raise its ladder to the sixth floor.

From 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., a memorial Mass, sponsored by the Triangle Fire Memorial Association, will be held at Our Lady of Pompei Church, 25 Carmine St. at Bleecker St., led by Father John Maneri, pastor, and New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan. In March and April 1911, Father Anthony Demo said memorial Masses “for the repose of the souls of the departed victims of the Washington Place Fire Disaster.”

At 4:45 p.m., the time that the fire broke out 100 years ago, a vigil led by Annie Lanzillotto, Lulu Lolo, Rose Imperato, Audrey Kindred and Carmelina Cartei — descendants of Triangle fire victims — will ring bells 146 times in memory of the victims.

All over the city, but especially in the East Village and on the Lower East Side, a group of volunteers led by Ruth Seigel, a documentary filmmaker, will chalk the names of the 146 victims, their ages and addresses, in front of the buildings where they lived. Among those names will be Lena Goldstein, 22, and her sister, Mary Goldstein, 18, both of 161 E. Second St. In front of 143 Essex St., the group will chalk the names of Max Lehrer, 18, and his brother, Sam Lehrer, 19. And at 35 Second Ave. will be the names of Catherine Maltese, 39, and her two daughters, Luciana Maltese, 20, and Rosaria Maltese, 13, the youngest victim.

The Forward, now a weekly paper in English but then a daily paper in Yiddish, will publish a special section on March 25 with the English translations of the original Yiddish coverage and the paper’s impassioned editorials by Ab Caham pleading for reforms.

In the evening on March 25, The Cooper Union, along with the coalition, The Labor and Working Class History Association, The Education and Labor Collective and the Sparkplug Foundation, will conduct a program in The Cooper Union’s Foundation Building of music, spoken word and solidarity in commemoration of the victims.

On Sat., March 26, the Stanton St. Shul, 180 Stanton St., between Clinton and Attorney Sts., whose congregation began in 1894, will admit visitors to a Triangle commemorative service between 10 a.m. and noon. The building, however, is old and not wheelchair accessible.

On Sun., March 27, at 1:46 p.m., 146 people, representing each of the 1911 victims, will walk from the site of the fire on Washington Place and Greene St. to the Eldridge St. Synagogue, 12 Eldridge St., between Division and Canal Sts. The procession, led by a cantor and evoking Yiddish funerals of 100 years ago, will represent the walk home that the victims were never able to make. A tribute to the victims will take place in the synagogue around 3 p.m.

New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, at 100 Washington Square East, and the N.Y.U. public Open House Gallery, at 528 LaGuardia Place, will have exhibits of photos and texts on the Triangle disaster until next month.

The owners of Triangle Shirtwaist, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were in their factory with their young sons when the fire broke out but they were able to reach the building’s roof and survived. The two owners stood trial for negligent homicide but they were acquitted when their lawyer, Max Steuer, suggested that the surviving victims’ testimony was staged and that prosecutors failed to prove the owners knew that any exit doors were locked at the time of the fire.

However, the owners lost a civil suit in 1913 and had to pay the plaintiffs compensation of $75 for each deceased victim. Nevertheless, Blanck and Harris collected insurance of about $60,000 more than their reported losses, or about $400 per casualty, according to the Web site of the Kheel Archives of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

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