The story was written by Christopher Maher.
This past Friday, in the shade on the corners of Washington and Greene streets, a crowd gathered around a small stage with a “Workers United” banner hung behind it. They were there to commemorate the 107th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
The 1911 tragedy cost the lives of 146 workers, mostly immigrant women living on the Lower East Side, and exposed abhorrent work conditions. When the fire broke out, the doors to the factory were locked. During last week’s ceremony, members of the crowd brandished signs reading “Immigrant Rights Are Worker’s Rights.”
Some held shirtwaists aloft, each draped with a sash bearing the name of one of the victims. After a few songs by the New York City Labor Choir and the On Site Opera, the commemoration began with a prayer from Rabbi Michael Feinberg, executive director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition. “We all know that liberation is something that every generation needs to pick up and carry on,” he said. “It’s never done once and for all.” Feinberg’s words set the theme for the day: looking to the mistakes of the past as a template for how to steer the future.
In 1911, the New York City Fire Department’s tallest ladder reached only to the sixth floor, preventing firefighters from reaching the workers, who were locked in rooms on the top floors of the building. On Friday, the FDNY extended a ladder from a fire truck, but only to the sixth floor.
Labor activist Ed Vargas made repeated mention of the “March for Our Lives” that was to take place the following day in cities across the country. Another speaker, a local Dreamer, talked about the impact organized labor has made on his life. The man, who was identified only as Nelson, said DACA has given him the chance to become a teamster and support his mother and siblings.
Following their remarks, every speaker read the names of a few of the victims, who were mostly in their late teens or early twenties. As each name was called, a student, wearing a plastic fireman’s helmet, came forward, and laid a single flower on a piece of black cloth that had been spread out on the sidewalk. Every flower was accompanied by a toll of a bell.
To bring the event to a close, descendants of the victims gathered around a microphone and read the names of lost family members before laying down more flowers. After helping their grandmother lay a flower, Clyde and Sebastian, ages 5 and 8, found a patch of sunshine. “They lost two great-great-aunts in the fire,” their grandmother explained. When asked why they were there, Sebastian confessed that he had a cold and couldn’t go to school, and his mother laughed. “They’re not media trained yet, but they know what happened. They’ve done a report on the fire.”
Soon, others will also know what happened at this site. The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition has commissioned a memorial called, “Reframing the Sky.” With a $1.5 million dollar grant from New York State, the memorial is likely to be affixed to the side of the building in the next few years.