Saturday, March 25, 2006

Triangle inferno - and the terrible story goes on


"The life of men and women is so cheap, and property is so sacred."

A chance visit to a site called Jewschool, at (reached by following links via Ireland and Hungary as a matter of fact) brought a reminder from someone called Ruby K. that today is the 95th anniversary of the Triangle Fire. New York garment unions and the Workmen's Circle are holding commemorative events. I turned to an article in Jewish Socialist Spring 2001 about this man-made disaster, whose echoes continue in horrific fires today.

It was late on a Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911. The workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, on the upper floors of the Asch building in New York, mainly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, some no more than teenagers, were getting ready to go home. With Spring in the air, some may have been hoping a bit of extra pay would not only cover their rent and necessities, but stretch to some special Passover groceries, or an Easter bonnet.

Suddenly the word "Fire!" was heard. Within minutes the blaze spread through the factory's floors. Workers struggled through the narrow aisles between machines and blazing bales of cloth, many only to find themselves trapped behind locked doors. The Triangle factory's only fire escape, leading to an inner yard, buckled in the heat under the weight of those who reached it.

Some managed to get out on to the roof and escape across neighbouring buildings. Three men formed a human chain to help fellow-workers across a gap between window ledges, but then growing exhausted, lost their balance and fell 80 feet to their death. As the flames grew fiercer those trapped leapt desperately from windows. The firefighters' ladders and hoses could not reach the upper floors nor could their safety net cope with the people leaping from the inferno.

Horrified watchers saw two girls burned to death at a window. The sidewalks and the yard at the rear were soon littered with bodies, some with clothes smouldering or scorched. By the end of the day 146 workers were killed, either burned to death or crushed on the pavement. Dazed and traumatised survivors continued to have nightmares for many years.

Two years before this blaze, trades unionists striking at Triangle had demanded not just decent pay but adequate fire safety provision. The strike was broken with the help of hired thugs, and sacked strikers were replaced by newcomers desperate for the work. New York city employers succeeded in blocking city fire legislation.

Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, the owners of Triangle, escaped the fire. Socialist lawyer Morris Hillquit noted how they didn't go down with their workers, "what a tremendous difference between the captains of ships and the captains of industry!" In fact, with several previous fires to their name, the pair still collected a tidy sum in fire insurance. They generously offered to pay Triangle victims' families a week's pay ("as though giving them a vacation" workers wryly commented). Within a few days, backed by a big brokerage firm, they were advertising for new workers for another factory they opened up. A jury eight months later acquitted the two of any wrongdoing.

Some 400,000 people marched in pouring rain to union-organised funeral for the Triangle victims. At a memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911, Rose Schneiderman, who had been one of the leaders of the 1909 strike, spoke:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.
This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.
We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.
Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.
I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

The place of the Triangle fire in American memory literature and poetry is discussed by Janet Zandy at

There are pictures from the time at

Capitalism has changed. Of course it has. There are still sweatshops in the rich United States, particularly in the garment trade, but capital has gone abroad in search of pastures new, while wise men and politicians told us of a new "post-industrial" , "information society" and "leisure age", making all our notions of toil and struggle, unions and solidarity obsolete..... Oh yeah?

For 82 years the Triangle Factory fire held a record for deaths. Then on the afternoon of May 10, 1993, a fire broke out in a four-story factory complex in Nakhon Pathom Province in Thailand, near Bangkok. The complex belonged to the Kader Industrial Toy Company, a giant sweatshop operation that over the years had manufactured toys that were distributed and sold by some of the most prominent names in corporate America, including Toys "R" Us, J.C. Penney, Fisher-Price, Gund and Hasbro.

Listen to Lampan Taptim, who survived the fire:
"There was the sound of yelling about a fire. I tried to leave the section but the supervisor told me to get back to work. My sister who worked on the fourth floor with me pulled me away and insisted we try to get out. We tried to go down the stairs and got to the second floor. We found that the stairs had already caved in. There was a lot of yelling and confusion. I couldn't do down farther. In desperation I went back up to the windows and went back and forth looking down below. The smoke was thick and I picked the best place to jump on a pile of boxes. My sister jumped, too. She died."

Described by witnesses as a "living hell," the Kader factory fire killed 188 panicked and screaming workers, of whom 174 were women and teen-age girls.

Then there's "People's China", entering capitalism's embrace as sweated sub-contractor for big foreign companies:
Chen Yuying was 15 years old when she began working in the Zhili Toy factory. She worked there for three years, earning seven cents an hour. In order to help pay for her older brother's schooling, Chen would send home what she could of her $26 monthly salary. When the factory caught fire in November 1993, 87 workers were killed, and hundreds, including Chen, were severely injured. The number of people killed and injured might not have been as high if it weren't for the unsafe conditions of the factory. There were no sprinkler systems, fire alarms, fire hoses, or fire escapes, and heavy mesh covered all of the windows. The doors of the factory were locked to prevent workers from escaping or leaving without having met their daily quotas.

The Secret Life of Toys
Child Slave Labor in Barbie Sweatshops
The Kader Toy Factory Fire

November 2005:
Factory Fire Kills 22 in Bangladesh
NARAYANGANJ, Bangladesh -- A fire raced through a garment factory in Bangladesh, killing 22 people who were trapped because most of the exits were locked, officials said Friday.
Rescuers recovered the victims' charred bodies after the fire destroyed the Sun Knit garment factory late Thursday in Siddhirganj, an industrial town near Dhaka, the capital, fire brigade official Nurul Islam said.

And to bring us right up to date, this came today:
Bangladesh factory fire toll 65, may rise
CHITTAGONG, Bangladesh - A fire that gutted a textile mill in Bangladesh's port city of Chittagong has killed at least 65 workers, many of them women, and left dozens missing, witnesses and hospitals said on Friday.
About 80 people were injured in the country's biggest factory fire on Thursday, while several workers could still be trapped in the debris, rescue workers said.
The blaze at the KTS Textile Mills was believed to have started when a boiler exploded.
Firefighters said they were yet to completely stamp out the blaze, more than 12 hours after it started, prompting local authorities to call in the army for assistance.
"Charred bodies are still being removed to hospitals," a Reuters' reporter said from the site of the fire. Wailing relatives crowded into the hospital corridors to identify the victims.
The death toll is likely to rise, said a doctor at the main hospital in Chittagong. "We are struggling to treat so many burn injuries," he said.
Some 500 workers, mostly women, were working the late evening shift when the disaster struck.
Police said the main gate of the three-story factory, which employed about 1,500 workers, was locked from the outside and the gatekeeper could not be found immediately.
Textiles are Bangladesh's biggest export fetching the country some $6 billion annually, but safety standards at the mills are poor, officials and employees say.
More than 350 workers have been killed and some 2,500 injured in garment factory fires in Bangladesh since 1990, textile industry officials estimate. Reuters

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