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The Triangle Fire
The Triangle Fire
The Triangle Fire
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The Triangle Fire

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"Leon Stein’s gripping narrative of the Triangle tragedy is one of the classics of American history. As the grandson of a onetime Triangle seamstress, I salute the reissue of a book that anyone who cares about labor, past or present, should read."—Michael Kazin, Georgetown University, author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History and other books

Praise for the 1962 edition—
"Stein recreates the tragic events of the fire in all their dramatic intensity. His moving account is a work of dedication."—New York Times Book Review

"With commendable restraint, Stein uses newspapers, official documents, and the evidence of survivors to unfold a story made more harrowing by the unemotional simplicity of its narration."—Library Journal

"Stein... suggests that the fire alerted the public to shocking working conditions all over the city and helped the unions organize the clothing industry, but his good taste keeps him from selling the reader any silver lining. A by-product of the careful research that has gone into this excellent narrative is an interesting sketch of the hard lives and times of working girls in the days when the business of America was business."—New Yorker

March 25, 2011, marks the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 garment workers lost their lives. A work of history relevant for all those who continue the fight for workers’ rights and safety, this edition of Leon Stein’s classic account of the fire features a substantial new foreword by the labor journalist Michael Hirsch, as well as a new appendix listing all of the victims’ names, for the first time, along with addresses at the time of their death and locations of their final resting places.

HerausgeberILR Press
Erscheinungsdatum15. Jan. 2011
The Triangle Fire
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    The Triangle Fire - Leon Stein


    1. FIRE

    I intend to show Hell.

    —DANTE: Inferno, CANTO XXIX:96

    The first touch of spring warmed the air.

    It was Saturday afternoon—March 25, 1911—and the children from the teeming tenements to the south filled Washington Square Park with the shrill sounds of youngsters at play. The paths among the old trees were dotted with strollers.

    Genteel brownstones, their lace-curtained windows like drooping eyelids, lined two sides of the 8-acre park that formed a sanctuary of green in the brick and concrete expanse of New York City. On the north side of the Square rose the red brick and limestone of the patrician Old Row, dating back to 1833. Only on the east side of the Square was the almost solid line of homes broken by the buildings of New York University.

    The little park originally had been the city’s Potter’s Field, the final resting place of its unclaimed dead, but in the nineteenth century Washington Square became the city’s most fashionable area. By 1911 the old town houses stood as a rear guard of an aristocratic past facing the invasions of industry from Broadway to the east, low-income groups from the crowded streets to the south, and the first infiltration of artists and writers into Greenwich Village to the west.

    Dr. D. C. Winterbottom, a coroner of the City of New York, lived at 63 Washington Square South. Some time after 4:30, he parted the curtains of a window in his front parlor and surveyed the pleasant scene.

    He may have noticed Patrolman James P. Meehan of Traffic B proudly astride his horse on one of the bridle paths which cut through the park.

    Or he may have caught a glimpse of William Gunn Shepherd, young reporter for the United Press, walking briskly eastward through the Square.

    Clearly visible to him was the New York University building filling half of the eastern side of the Square from Washington Place to Waverly Place. But he could not see, as he looked from his window, that Professor Frank Sommer, former sheriff of Essex County, New Jersey, was lecturing to a class of fifty on the tenth floor of the school building, or that directly beneath him on the ninth floor Professor H. G. Parsons was illustrating interesting points of gardening to a class of forty girls.

    A block east of the Square and parallel to it, Greene Street cut a narrow path between tall loft buildings. Its sidewalks bustled with activity as shippers trundled the day’s last crates and boxes to the horse-drawn wagons lining the curbs.

    At the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, a wide thoroughfare bisecting the east side of the Square, the Asch building rose ten floors high. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, largest of its kind, occupied the top three floors. As Dr. Winterbottom contemplated the peaceful park, 500 persons, most of them young girls, were busily turning thousands of yards of flimsy fabric into shirtwaists, a female bodice garment which the noted artist Charles Dana Gibson had made the sartorial symbol of American womanhood.

    One block north, at the corner of Greene Street and Waverly Place, Mrs. Lena Goldman swept the sidewalk in front of her small restaurant. It was closing time. She knew the girls who worked in the Asch building well for many of them were her customers.

    Dominick Cardiane, pushing a wheelbarrow, had stopped for a moment in front of the doors of the Asch building freight elevator in the middle of the Greene Street block. He heard a sound like a big puff, followed at once by the noise of crashing glass. A horse reared, whinnied wildly, and took off down Greene Street, the wagon behind it bouncing crazily on the cobblestones.

    Reporter Shepherd, about to cross from the park into Washington Place, also heard the sound. He saw smoke issuing from an eighth-floor window of the Asch building and began to run.

    Patrolman Meehan was talking with his superior, Lieutenant William Egan. A boy ran up to them and pointed to the Asch building. The patrolman put spurs to his horse.

    Dr. Winterbottom saw people in the park running toward Washington Place. A few seconds later he dashed down the stoop carrying his black medical bag and cut across the Square toward Washington Place.

    Patrolman Meehan caught up with Shepherd and passed him. For an instant there seemed to be no sound on the street except the urgent tattoo of his horse’s hoofbeats as Meehan galloped by. He pulled up in front of 23 Washington Place, in the middle of the block, and jumped from the saddle.

    Many had heard the muffled explosion and looked up to see the puff of smoke coming out of an eighth-floor window. James Cooper, passing by, was one of them. He saw something that looked like a bale of dark dress goods come out of a window.

    Some one’s in there all right. He’s trying to save the best cloth, a bystander said to him.

    Another bundle came flying out of a window. Halfway down the wind caught it and the bundle opened.

    It was not a bundle. It was the body of a girl.

    Now the people seemed to draw together as they fell back from where the body had hit. Nearby horses struggled in their harnesses.

    The screams brought me running, Mrs. Goldman recalled. I could see them falling! I could see them falling!

    John H. Mooney broke out of the crowd forming on the sidewalk opposite the Asch building and ran to Fire Box 289 at the corner of Greene Street. He turned in the first alarm at 4:45 P.M.

    Inside the Asch building lobby Patrolman Meehan saw that both passenger elevators were at the upper floors. He took the stairs two steps at a time.

    Between the fifth and sixth floors he found his way blocked by the first terrified girls making the winding descent from the Triangle shop. In the narrow staircase he had to flatten himself against the wall to let the girls squeeze by.

    Between the seventh and eighth floors he almost fell over a girl who had fainted. Behind her the blocked line had come to a stop, the screaming had increased. He raised her to her feet, held her for a moment against the wall, calming her, and started her once again down the stairs.

    At the eighth floor, he remembers that the flames were within 8 feet of the stairwell. I saw two girls at a window on the Washington Place side shouting for help and waving their hands hysterically. A machinist—his name was Brown—helped me get the girls away from the window. We sent them down the stairs.

    The heat was unbearable. It backed us to the staircase, Meehan says.

    Together with the machinist, he retreated down the spiral staircase. At the sixth floor, the policeman heard frantic pounding on the other side of the door facing the landing. He tried to open the door but found it was locked. He was certain now that the fire was also in progress on this floor.

    I braced myself with my back against the door and my feet on the nearest step of the stairs. I pushed with all my strength. When the door finally burst inward, I saw there was no smoke, no fire. But the place was full of frightened women. They were screaming and clawing. Some were at the windows threatening to jump.

    These were Triangle employees who had fled down the rear fire escape. At the sixth floor, one of them had pried the shutters open, smashed the window and climbed back into the building. Others followed. Inside, they found themselves trapped behind a locked door and panicked.

    As he stumbled back into the street, Meehan saw that the first fire engines and police patrol wagons were arriving. Dr. Winterbottom, in the meantime, had reached Washington Place. For a moment he remained immobilized by the horror. Then he rushed into a store, found a telephone, and shouted at the operator, For God’s sake, send ambulances!

    The first policemen on the scene were from the nearby Mercer Street Station House of the 8th Precinct. Among them were some who had used their clubs against the Triangle girls a year earlier during the shirtwaist makers’ strike.

    First to arrive was Captain Dominick Henry, a man inured to suffering by years of police work in a tough, two-fisted era. But he stopped short at his first view of the Asch building. I saw a scene I hope I never see again. Dozens of girls were hanging from the ledges. Others, their dresses on fire, were leaping from the windows.

    From distant streets came piercing screams of fire whistles, the nervous clang of fire bells. Suddenly, they were sounding from all directions.

    In the street, men cupped their hands to their mouths, shouting, Don’t jump! Here they come! Then they waved their arms frantically.

    Patrolman Meehan also shouted. He saw a couple standing in the frame of a ninth-floor window. They moved out onto the narrow ledge. I could see the fire right behind them. I hollered, ‘Go over!’

    But nine floors above the street the margin of choice was as narrow as the window ledge. The flames reached out and touched the woman’s long tresses. The two plunged together.

    In the street, watchers recovering from their first shock had sprung into action. Two young men came charging down Greene Street in a wagon, whipping their horses onto the sidewalk and shouting all the time, Don’t jump! They leaped from the wagon seat, tore the blankets from their two horses, and shouted for others to help grip them. Other teamsters also stripped blankets, grabbed tarpaulins to improvise

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