Feature stories

100 years later ...

Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

Teachers (from left) Milagros Ramirez and Cesia Ramirez with their PS 188, Manha Miller Photography

Teachers (from left) Milagros Ramirez and Cesia Ramirez with their PS 188, Manhattan students take in the ceremony. Students made their own posters in school and read articles and watched a documentary in their study of the Triangle Fire.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis addresses the crowd. Miller Photography

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis addresses the crowd.

On the 100th anniversary of the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, thousands — including relatives of those who lost their lives in the tragedy — turned out to pay homage at the Greenwich Village site.

They came from as far away as Italy and as near as neighboring New York City schools to pay tribute to the 146 mostly young, immigrant women workers who were burned or jumped to their deaths on March 25, 1911, when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire raged out of control. With factory doors locked by the owners, there was no way out.

The fire galvanized advocates of their day, determined that the workers’ lives would not be lost in vain, to usher in a period of new workplace safety regulations and it spurred labor organizing.

Some attendees arrived in period costume, holding signs in the shape of shirtwaist blouses emblazoned with the names of the dead. Schoolchildren carried posters and many wore red fire hats to signal the advances made in fire safety, one of the important lessons that came out of the fire. In 1911, fire ladders couldn’t reach higher than six floors; many workers who perished in the Tringle fire were on the eighth floor of the building.

“We are here today, 100 years later, for a lesson that this country had to learn in a very hard way,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew told the crowd, which stretched for blocks.

“The shame of it is, we stand here 100 years later and still have to fight the same battles,” Mulgrew said. He asked everyone at the ceremony to make a pledge to work to ensure that today’s schoolchildren will have better lives than those of previous generations.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis gave an impassioned speech calling on the country to “protect our most vulnerable workers and provide a safety net.” To loud applause, she said that “labor must always have a seat at the table.”

“You can rest assured,” Solis told the crowd, “the Department of Labor is back in the enforcement business.”

Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said, “The power of the collective will triumph over greed, whether its 1911 or 2011, and I’ve witnessed the collective will as never before in my state.”

For school children who turned out for the ceremony, it was a chance to experience living history, hear from family members of survivors, and take part by placing flowers at the site for each of those who lost their lives.

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