Living with the Fire
The descendant of a Triangle survivor explores the fire's enduring grip on history
NFPA Journal® online exclusive, March 2011
By Amy Kolen
The night after I read about the deadly Triangle factory fire of March 25, 1911, I saw flames as I slept, and heard the screams of young women trapped in rooms nine stories above the street . . .
So begins my essay, "Fire," (PDF, 1MB) which first appeared in The Massachusetts Review, a literary journal, in 2001. I'd spent two years, off and on, researching and writing about the fire, beginning in the late 1990s, when I started working on an MFA in nonfiction writing and needed something to write about. I recalled that my Grandma Rose, my father's mother, had mentioned the fire, briefly, in a letter she'd written to me shortly before she died. At the time I wrote the essay, I knew that my grandmother, Rose Alter, who was 15 at the time of the fire, along with her sister, Mary, her father Louis, her brother-in-law, and other, more distant relatives, all worked at Triangle. I knew they were at work the day of the fire, and survived. I knew that my grandmother was related to one of the factory's owners, Isaac Harris.
My research began with Leon Stein's book, The Triangle Fire. The visceral reaction that hijacked me while I devoured this book and discovered the roles certain relatives played in the drama and events leading up to it — at least the relatives whom I knew at the time were closely connected to the factory — propelled me to learn more about the tragedy, and to consider my connection to my grandmother. I needed to understand Grandma Rose's reality, as a Jewish immigrant from Russia, and the relatives who helped smooth her entry into America in 1903. I needed to reconcile her opinion towards workers' rights to organize — I understood her to be anti-union most of her life — with the feelings I had for her: a person I loved, who, through regular letters and phone calls, provided consistent support and encouragement, the only grandparent with whom I had a sustained relationship. The fire was the moment I used to try to bring it all into focus. I pored over journal articles, books, old photographs, microfiche of old newspapers, and audio tapes and transcripts on the Triangle fire housed in the Kheel Center archives at Cornell University. Through the process of researching, writing, and publishing the essay, I felt as if I'd finished wrestling with the emotions that had compelled me to explore Grandma Rose and Triangle in the first place.
I'd thought my quest to unearth my grandmother's story was mine alone, but I soon learned otherwise when my essay was selected for inclusion in Best American Essays, 2002. (The collection was edited by Stephen Jay Gould, the celebrated evolutionary biologist who was then teaching at New York University. In his introduction to the edition, he notes that his own grandmother "was a shirtwaist worker, on the job at a different sweatshop on the day of the fire." Furthermore, Gould's NYU office was located in the Brown Building, which had some years earlier subsumed a 10-story structure at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street called the Asch Building, which in 1911 housed the Triangle Waist Company; his office was on one of the floors of the former Asch Building that burned in the fire.) Best American hit bookstore shelves in late 2002. I soon began receiving emails from across the country: high school and college instructors wanted permission to use the essay in their classes; students wanted embellishments on certain segments of the piece to help them write their papers; a lawyer was "fascinated" by the "human side of something [he'd] previously known only as a lawyer story"; a well-known movie director with an "obsession" for the Triangle fire "admired" the way I "handled the material, honoring [my] grandmother without demeaning the 146" people who died in the fire; readers who knew they were related to the owners, or thought they might be, were moved by my story, and also wanted to do something publicly to acknowledge, or apologize for, the roles their ancestors played in the event. The essay created ripples that touched not only history, but also a contemporary fascination with the fire and its aftermath that I'd had no idea existed.
In March 2006, a television production company flew me to New York City for an interview — which coincided with the 95th annual memorial for the victims of the fire — for The Jewish Americans, a PBS documentary that included a segment on the Triangle fire. Along with the labor and American history experts, they wanted someone in the film to add some kind of personal connection to the Triangle event, which I hoped to do by recounting my grandmother's story. While I was in New York, I also felt drawn to attend the memorial. I wanted to see again the place where my grandmother had worked, where 146 immigrants, mostly girls and young women, had perished. I wanted to pay tribute to the victims of the fire, the people who, in death, helped launch an array of landmark legislation and workplace reforms, and set in motion the process that would eventually lead to the creation of NFPA's Life Safety Code.
At the memorial, I met people who had no personal connection to the fire, yet were driven to respond publicly to it. Among them were the journalist David von Drehle, with whom I'd corresponded since the fall of 2002, when he was finishing his book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America; and the performance artist Lulu Lolo, who, every March 25 in a public art event she calls "Chalk," organizes volunteers across NYC's five boroughs to inscribe in chalk the names and ages of the Triangle fire victims in front of the buildings where they once lived. Facing the Brown Building that day, I watched as the ceremony neared its conclusion, with 146 school children who, one by one, placed a white carnation, with the name of a fire victim attached, on the pavement near the fire truck parked in front of the building.
As the bell tolled 146 times in accompaniment to each child reading each victim's name, I began to wonder why people with no personal stake in the tragedy were so determined to ensure that the public never forget the conditions that gave rise to the fire. Were they merely trying to make themselves visible by appropriating the Triangle fire as a symbolic historical event? Were they assuming a sense of purpose they otherwise wouldn't have? If they felt so strongly, then what was the responsibility of those of us who were direct descendents? Was I still living Triangle — was the story not yet finished for me?
The PBS documentary aired in 2008, and touched off a new wave of emails and voice messages from people seeking a connection to the Triangle fire. One of the people who contacted me was historian Michael Hirsch, a New Yorker who'd worked for years to create an accurate and complete list of all the fire victims, including the six who were previously unidentified, in time for the fire's 100th anniversary. He hoped I had information on a particular woman who'd been severely injured in the fire; I didn't, and I thought our conversation was over. He continued to email and call, however, providing material about Grandma Rose's family: death certificates, census records, photos of my great-grandparents' graves —even my father didn't know where his grandparents were buried. Hirsch told me that my grandmother provided a bridge to many of his unanswered questions, and I was struck by his dedication to an event to which he, like others I'd met, had no personal connection. Hirsch's turbo-genealogist efforts came to the attention of a company producing an HBO special on the fire, and Hirsch became a consultant and eventually a co-producer on the project. When he asked if I'd consider being interviewed for the program, I said yes. (The documentary, "Triangle: Remembering the Fire," begins airing on HBO on Monday, March 21, at 9 p.m.)
It was while prepping for the HBO interview in December 2009 that my Triangle story, very much alive, added yet another chapter, one I hadn't even imagined when I wrote my essay in 2001. By the time of the HBO interview, Hirsch had corroborated what I'd first learned from David von Drehle: that my grandmother was related to both Triangle owners and to maybe two-dozen others at work on that terrible Saturday — people who were also related to Harris and Blanck. Hirsch emphasized that some of these people died in the conflagration. Nothing in my previous reading about the fire indicated that the owners' families might have been devastated by the tragedy. Nothing I'd read considered that because the owners had family working in the factory, they might not have wanted to lock their employees in.
Realizing that my relatives straddled the world of the living and the dead made my initial reading of certain entries in the Kheel Center's electronic visitor book that much more wrenching. For many visitors to the site, the fire is very much alive, and Harris and Blanck are very much the villains: "The owners needed stringing up," writes one outraged man in an entry dated May 2008. "Always amazed by the depths of greed," wrote another. "Prayers continue . . .to the descendents of those who were murdered by those animals who saw fit to treat human beings like beasts," and so on. I am a descendent of the murdered and the murderers alike. Do the writer's prayers extend to me, too? The people making those inflammatory comments are probably more similar to me politically than my grandmother and her family would be, were they alive today, yet the stark divide into good and evil makes me uncomfortable.
Having ancestors who survived the fire and those who did not has made me more aware of the complexities of the Triangle event and the circumstances that created it. I am also more attuned to labor and immigration issues in general, including those we face today. It's made me more aware of the industrial fire hazards vulnerable workers face within the United States and outside our borders, and the inability, and in some cases unwillingness, of governments around the world (including, sometimes, our own) to enforce the laws designed to safeguard those workers. It's made me aware of our country's contemporary exporting of labor without standards, and of our outsourcing of Triangle fires across the world. It's made me question where the inexpensive clothing and toys we buy in this country come from, who made them, and at what cost.
On May 10, 1993, 188 people, most of them young women, died in a fire at the Kader Toy Factory on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand. Hundreds were injured. About 800 people were at work that day in the four-story structure, with its inadequate fire exits, locked doors, combustible materials heaped on the floor, and few if any fire precautions. The factory made toys for an assortment of large American toy companies. In his introduction to the 2001 edition of Leon Stein's The Triangle Fire, the journalist William Greider notes that the Kader fire "was the worst in the history of capitalism — surpassing even the Triangle fire — yet the rest of the world barely noticed."
The tragedies repeat themselves, and the scenarios are eerily similar; in almost every case the factories are producing goods for large retailers in the U.S. and Europe. Six months after the Kader fire, 84 workers, most of them women, died and many more were severely burned in a toy factory fire in Shenzhen, China. On November 25, 2000, 47 people, mostly young women, died in a fire at Chowdhury Knitwear and Garments, a factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh. On February 23, 2006, 84 workers, most of them women and teenage girls, died in a fire that ripped through the KTS Textile Mill in Chittagong, Bangladesh. On February 26, 2010, 21 died in a blaze that ravaged Garib and Garib Sweater Factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh. On December 14, 2010, a fire raged through the Ha-Meem garment factory near Dhaka, killing 30 and injuring more than 100. The fire occurred two days after thousands of Bangladeshi workers — four of whom were killed by police — launched a strike for higher wages and better working conditions in the country's thousands of garment factories.
I continue to try to answer my earlier question of responsibility. The story of the Triangle fire is universal, and though I may have an especially strong connection to the narrative, I cannot claim a special ownership. All of us have family members who were once immigrants, and most of us have relatives who, trying to better their lives, left their homelands for menial jobs and worked long hours in miserable, unsafe conditions to feed their families and send money back home. On the centennial of the Triangle fire, I'll stand on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, honoring my grandmother and the 146 who died. I'll stand, one among many who further believe that laws protecting workers must be created and enforced worldwide, and I'll honor as well the thousands who have perished in modern factory fires across the globe.
Perhaps our greatest responsibility is to simply remember.
Amy Kolen is a writer and editor in Iowa City, Iowa.