The UPI reporter, William Shepherd, was just by chance on the corner of Manhattanís Washington Place and Greene Street when on March 25, 1911 flames started licking out of the eighth and ninth floors across the street. He knew the place, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. The year before its workers had gone on strike for better conditions.
Shepherd telephoned his office, where telegraph operators clickity-clacked a dramatic story across America. Shepherd saw, way above him, a young man helping a young woman to the ninth floor windowsill. The young man held her out the window, and let her drop. The man reached back into the flames, held a second girl out the window and then a third, letting them drop. None of the girls resisted, ìas if,î reported Shepherd, ìhe were helping them into a street car instead of into eternity.
îA fourth girl put her arms around that man in the window and kissed him, perhaps impulsively for the first time or simply for the last. Then he held her out of the window and dropped her 100 feet to the sidewalk, quickly jumping after her.ì
His coat fluttered upwards,î reported Shepherd, ìthe air filled his trouser legs as he came down. I could see he wore tan shoes.îShepherd wrote, ìLater, I saw his face. You could see he was a real man. He had done his best.î
In less than half an hour, 146 people were dead, mostly young Jewish and Italian women. Witnesses said they fell ìjust like rain,î or like birds shot in the sky. In the street the water from the fire hoses ran red with the blood.
Someone clocked the fire at 18 minutes. We can say the fire lasted 18 minutes and 95 years. Last weekend, on the days surrounding the anniversary of the disaster, fire bells tolled and flowers were placed on the sidewalk outside the New York University building that occupies the Triangleís space. The building survived. It was fireproof.
Last Friday, students and workers read every one of the victimsí names, placing a flower for each, while firefighters raised a ladder to show the highest point ladders could reach in 1911 ó the sixth floor, two stories below where it mattered.How did it start? A lit cigarette? What ignited? Perhaps the oil from the sewing machines, the rags in bins, the clothing patterns hanging above work tables. After the blaze ended, a fire chief said he came upon skeletons bending over sewing machines.
Those who jumped into the firemenís nets crashed through them. Sometimes two or three women jumped together, holding hands. One woman, according to a witness, stood ì as though she was standing before her own mirror,î removed her wide-brimmed hat ìand sent it sailing through the air. Then slowly, carefully, she opened her handbag. Out of it she extracted a few bills and a handful of coins ó her pay,î for it was payday. ìThese she flung into space. The bills floated slowly downward. The coins hit the cobblestones, ringing as she jumped.î
The first fire alarm was at 4:45 p.m. and at 4:57 the final body fell from the ninth floor, onto an iron hook on the sixth floor, where she hung burning and then, about a minute later, with a thud onto Greene Street. Leon Stein, in his ìTriangle Fireî history, wrote that by shortly after 5 p.m. about 10,000 people were drawn to the scene; by 7, the crowd doubled. Many of our grandparents or great-grandparents were surely among them.
In Washington Square, a Salvation Army band played ìNearer My God, To Thee.î Eric Goldstein, 37, told us over the phone that his grandmother, Ruth Teich, was newly arrived in America. The day of the fire was supposed to have been her first day of work at the Triangle, a job found for her by relatives.ì
But March 25 was a Shabbos,î said Goldstein, as it was this year, and she had promised her father, before leaving Europe, that sheíd remember who she was. She defied her less observant relatives and hid rather than work. When she returned home after darkness, her family thought theyíd seen a ghost; she was feared to be dead or missing.
Shabbat saved the lives of others in the building as well. According to the Yiddish paperís coverage, workers in a sweatshop on an adjacent floor had negotiated that their Shabbat workday ended at noon, and so they were saved.The last Triangle survivor, Rose Freedman, died in 2001 in Californiaís Beverly Hills, aged 107.
Ruth Sergel, an East Village filmmaker, says, ìas a Jewish New Yorker you just grew up with stories of the Triangle fire. Iíve always been haunted by it.î Three years ago, she e-mailed an idea to some friends. ìWe would go out, on the anniversary of the fire,î says Sergel, ìto the homes of the victims and write with street chalk on the sidewalk the name and age of every victim, that they lived at that address and died March 25, 1911 in the Triangle fire.î This year more than 50 people were chalking.Last year, said Sergel, Karina Weinstein, program coordinator of the Workmenís Circle, ìchalked with me,î and this year Weinstein brought Sergel to Workmenís Circle groups from Long Island to Westchester to talk about the project and get people to participate. ìEven if the original buildings are gone,î says Sergel, ìthe chalk still goes on the sidewalk.î
Jennie Stellino, a 16-year-old who died from her burns three days after the fire, lived at 315 Bowery, now home to CBGB, the punk music club. Write in chalk that Max Lehrer, 19, left home that long-ago morning from 114 Essex Street, as did Yetta Meyers from 911 Rivington, and Rosie Shapiro from 149 Henry.The Triangle fire keeps showing up in the most unlikely places. About two weeks ago, archivists at Manhattanís Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History came across sheet music for ìMamenyu,î or ìElegy for the Triangle Fire Victims,î written by Anshel Schorr in 1911, sung to music of a Yiddish operetta. The Lehrman people couldnít read the Yiddish, but it was transliterated and translated in Eleanor and Joseph Mlotekís ìPearls of Yiddish Song,î a Workmenís Circle book, and performed off-Broadway in the 1980s, in Zalmen Mlotekís ìThe Golden Land.ì
The Jews grieve and weep and wring their hands. The morgues are full,î goes the elegy. ìFor a piece of bread, a horrible death robbed me of my only child. My daughter lies dead in a shroud instead of a wedding dress.îInstead of going down the wedding aisle, 18 women and six men went down the aisles of the Hebrew Free Burial Associationís cemetery in Staten Island. Amy Koplow, the associationís executive director, tells us that the yellowed archives indicate that one of the girls, Sarah Brodsky, 21, had her burial arranged by her ìchossen,î her would-be groom.ì
The chalk always washes away,î says Sergel, but itís all the more beautiful for that.ìWeíll always come back next year,î she promises. ìThatís what social justice and memory is all about. Itís not like itís ever over.î n