A group of victims’ descendants, labor advocates and volunteers in New York City are raising funds to erect a memorial to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, of 1911, in which 146 workers, mostly immigrants and teenagers, died.
It was New York's early 20th Century 9/11 and one lucky Irish emigrant named as Anne Dorrity somehow escaped the inferno.
Now a group called Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition is seeking to raise $2.4 million to build and maintain a memorial to those who died. The fire remains one of the United States' worst industrial disasters. The women who worked there, mainly Eastern European, Italian and Irish, called it a “prison.”
On March 25, 1911 a fire started on the 8th floor of the Asch Building on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Manhattan. The building did not have enough exits and many of the doors were bolted shut, as a result the workers were trapped inside. Many jumped out the windows in an attempt to escape and those who got out on the fire escapes died when it collapsed.
Several factors led to this accident becoming a tragedy. The Fire Department’s ladders only reached to the 6th floor and there were nearly 500 people working on the 8th, 9th, and 10 floors but the management had locked a door on the 9th floor to one of only two stairways. The factory's owners were also slow to notify their staff of the fire. Prior to the disaster there had been no fire drills and, unlike some other factories at the time, there were no sprinklers installed.
Frances Perkins, the then leader of the New York office of the National Consumers League and the state labor commissioner and the federal labor secretary under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, witnessed the fire and the workers jumping. She had been having tea at a friend’s house on the square.
The tragedy and images of bodies lined up on the sidewalk scarred the city and prompted hundreds of thousands to march down Fifth Avenue to honor the dead.
This fire gave renewed life to the labor movement and led to improved fire safety regulations and workplace protections as well as to mandatory fire exits and fire drills.
The planned memorial would include several long steel panels running along the façade of the building in which the factory was located. One 13-foot high horizontal panel will have the 146 names stenciled on it. A shin-high panel will reflect the names on the panel above and the bottom panel will include the narrative of the tragic event. The verticals will extend to the 9th floor.
The Coalition sponsored a design competition in 2013 at the time of the tragedy's 100th anniversary. They selected the concept of Richard Joon Yoo, an architectural designer, and Uri Wegman, a professor of architecture at Cooper Union.
Yoo told the New York Times, “What makes this memorial unique is it’s about the past, but also so much about the present.”
He noted that 112 workers died in a factory fire in Bangladesh in 2013 and then over 1,100 died in a factory collapse there.
He said, “It’s 100 years after the Triangle fire, but some of the exact same factors were at work…It’s appalling. It’s like you can have the Holocaust happen all over again, and zero lessons were learned.”
Yoo and Wegman say their design will encourage contemplation and participation.
Wegman said, “We thought of the memorial as a space that needs to be slowly discovered through the engagement and the curiosity of the viewer.
“The names of the victims cannot be read at first glance; they have to be discovered through some kind of engagement or participation.”
President of the Coalition, Mary Anne Trasciatti, commented that the design “positions the spectator to what happened in 1911, because your eyes are drawn upwards where the fire was raging and downward to see the names.”
The Coalition began plans for this memorial in 2010. To raise money it has set up a non-profit organization. Trasciatti told the Times, “One of the things we learned talking to people who worked on the 9/11 memorials is unless you have a powerful figure backing you, these things take a long time.”
It is their hope to obtain funding from the City Council, the State Legislature, labor unions and the public.
She added, “The memorial will be a reminder of the struggles that keep us safe now, as workers and as citizens.
“These things were achieved on the backs of immigrant workers and women workers. It was their misfortunes that gave us the protections we have today.”
New York University, which now owns the former factory building and uses it mainly for its biology and chemistry laboratories, has given its backing the memorial.
Here is an hour-long documentary on the tragedy: