“The floods of water from the firemen’s hose that ran into the gutter were actually stained red with blood.” -William Shepherd on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

One hundred years ago today, tragedy struck the New York City garment district when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire and blazed to ash and rubble, causing the deaths of 149 factory workers, most of whom were young female immigrants.

As the building went up in flames, the workers fought to find ways out, but the door to one exit was locked, the elevator was jammed, and people became frantic. Instead of being overcome by the fire, the girls (and some men) chose to jump from the eighth, ninth, and tenth stories.

Benjamin Levy, a junior exec. from a manufacturer down the street, witnessed the chaos:

Bodies were falling all around us, and two or three of the men with me were knocked down. The girls just leaped wildly out of the windows and turned over and over before reaching the sidewalk.

Just one year before, these same women who were jumping to their deaths had gone on strike for cleaner and safer work conditions, and according to William Shepherd, that fateful day, “These dead bodies were the answer.”

According The New York Times, “The fire accomplished what the strike could not. From the city’s grief sprang  government investigations and transformative legislation, first in New York State and then the nation.”

However, the argument has been made that wretched working conditions have not disappeared, but rather have been outsourced to third world countries where labor is cheap and the rights of workers are low priority.

According to The World, Robert Ross of Clark University says, “Effectively what we have done is exported our sweatshops and exported our factory fires. And it’s as if the 1911 conditions had been lifted up by an evil hand and dropped into Bangladesh.”

What do you think? What could or should be done to remedy the situation abroad?

Note: Until last month, the identities of six individuals who perished in the fire were unknown. The New York Times tells the story of how, 100 years later, the five Jane Does and one John Doe came to be identified.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

*Quotes that are not sited in this post are from Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in the American Workers series  by Morgan Reynolds, which received a Starred Review from School Library Journal and was a recommended Feminist Book by the Amelia Bloomer Project

Published in: on March 25, 2011 at 8:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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