Things We Learned in the Fire

A century after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the ensuing scandal, a documentary looks at how the disaster paved the way for social change in the U.S..

On March 25, 1911 a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan killed 146 workers, making it the worst industrial disaster in the city's history. Most of the casualties were women who worked in the factory's ninth floor sewing shop.

They came to the factory on Saturday, after already having worked 60 hours that week. The fire broke out at 4:40 P.M. on the eighth floor, started by a cigarette accidentally tossed onto some fabric. The panicked switchboard operator did not notify the 300 workers in the sewing shop that a fire was raging on the floor below.

suffragettes - Library of Congress - 05092011
A scene from the movie. Even before the fire, women agitated for better conditions.Library of Congress

A short time after the fire, it became apparent that the debacle was bigger than initially thought. Survivors said the doors to the shop were locked, to prevent the women from leaving work early, dooming them.

The film, "Triangle: Remembering the Fire," airing tonight on Yes Docu, starts with a description of the League for Women's Rights. In 1909, a strike began in a factory where people worked seven days a week; this strike led to a demonstration of 20,000 young immigrant women, many of whom did not yet speak English (some carried signs in Yiddish ).

After a few days of striking and protests, they were subject to humiliating treatment from the police and hired thugs. The same policemen who scuffled with the women on the street were the ones sent to pick up following the fire. The New York Times wrote that investigator Herman Holzhauser wept like a child when faced with the scene.

Granddaughters, great-granddaughters and relatives speak about their grandmothers and aunts who died in or survived the fire. Susan Harris, the granddaughter of one of the owners of the Triangle Factory, said on the day of the fire one of the owner's young daughters was in the building and managed to get up to the roof and be rescued. She is unwilling to forgive her relatives who owned the factory for what happened, and identifies with the unfortunate workers.

The disaster immediately acquired a social dimension. By the beginning of April, the film tells, they managed to bury all the victims, except for seven who were not identified. Against this backdrop a political debate erupted. The Ladies Garment Workers Union wanted a public funeral, but the city objected to a ceremony that would turn them into martyrs in the eyes of union supporters. On the day of the funeral, there was march attended by 100,000 people.

On April 11, the two owners of the factory were charged with manslaughter. But thanks to a polished lawyer, the all-male jury quickly found the two not guilty.

The investigation into the fire led to legislative changes in safety regulations, minimum wage, compensation for workers who lose their jobs and people who retire due to age.

The film by Daphne Pinkerson, of course, describes a much more difficult situation than that of the tent protesters and Daphni Leef. But while the fire affected social progress, the disaster can be hardly seen as having been worth the change.

"Triangle: Remembering the Fire" Yes Docu, 23:00