Like a Living Torch

On this day in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City consumes the lives of 146 garment workers; 123 women and 23 men. The victims perished from from the fire itself, smoke inhalation, or by falling or jumping to their deaths. Per company policy, they were routinely penned up and locked in to bolster productivity and discourage theft. The oldest victim was 43-year-old Providenza Panno, and the youngest were 14-year-olds Kate Leone and “Sara” Rosaria Maltese.

Although the origin of the fire remains largely undefined, the cause of death was the greed, avarice and reckless indifference to humanity displayed by the factory’s owners. Said fire flared up at approximately 4:40 PM in a scrap bin under one of the cutter’s tables at the northeast corner of the eighth floor, and the first fire alarm was sent at 4:45 PM. Within 18 minutes, the 146 victims were dead; 62 had elected to jump to their deaths and not less than 20 plunged 100 feet to the pavement when an exterior fire escape gave way under their weight.

In the exact account of witness Louis Waldman, a NY State Assemblyman, “Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.”

Notwithstanding the tragedy’s role in the labor movement and increased worker-safety progress through unionization, regulation and research, more than half the remaining East and West Coast garment factories in the US violate wage and hour laws; north of 90 percent have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.