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Triangle: Remembering the Fire

Aired March 26, 2011 - 23:00   ET


TOVAH FELDSHUH, NARRATOR (voice-over): At the turn of the 20th Century, millions of immigrants were pouring into New York City, fleeing famine and persecution in the old world, but instead of streets paved with gold. They discovered the tenements of the lower east side and brutal working conditions for meager pay.

The factories ran at breakneck speed with little government regulation to ensure the workers' safety and well-being. A great struggle was under way over the rights of working people including women and children as the progressive era was rising up against the guilded age.

On march 25th, 1911, all these forces converged in a historic reckoning when a fire broke out in a factory in downtown Manhattan killing 146 people, mostly young women and teenage girls. It burned through three floors in 18 minutes and burned a hole into the conscience of America.

SUZANNE PRED BASS: I have two great aunts that worked in the factory, Rosy Weiner who was killed in the fire and Katie Weiner who survived the fire. Both sisters of my grandmother Minnie.

My family was from Russia. They came over in steerage, suffering and miserable, but they'd saw the promise as much as they struggled. Rosy had a fiancee. She was saving money for a farm to get out of the city.

When I look at the photo, there's such a sweetness about her. Just a young woman on the cusp of life. When that fire broke out, Katie told me she was actually with Rosy and then lost her in the smoke.

And I don't know whether -- this is so emotional for me. It's extraordinary to me how emotional it is. I think that Rosy could have gone back to look for Katie.

You know? I think there was so much of this trying to find each other because she was the older sibling and Rosy never made it out.

FELDSHUH: The Triangle Factory one was in the city's newest skyscrapers just off of Washington Square Park on the top three floors of the Ash building. Up until this point, the garment industry had been spread out in tenement buildings throughout the city.

Now, companies could crowd hundreds of workers together under one roof in huge loft spaces with powerful machines. For the first time, women were wearing shirtwaists, separate tops like men. Isaac Harris and Max Blank, the owners of the Triangle Waist Company were known as the shirtwaist kings and made millions from this new fashion trend.

CATHERINE WEBER: I'm Catherine Weber. My grandmother Pauline, my father's mother worked at the Triangle Waist Company finishing buttonholes. To be a worker under those conditions was to have very few rights and very few options.

FELDSHUH: Fierce competition among shirtwaist manufacturers created a frenzied and dangerous pace. Many people were working seven days a week and extremely long hours for little pay.

WEBER: You were just supposed to work -- it was really an expectation of being a cog in the machine.

FELDSHUH: The International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the ILGWU began to organize garment workers across the city. Triangle was one of the largest factories, which made it a focal point of union activity.

In September of 1909, a strike started at the factory, which soon spread across the city. The general strike of 1909 became known as the uprising of the 20,000. It was the first large strike of women in this country and at a time when they still didn't have the vote.

The participants were mainly young immigrant girls, many of whom didn't even speak English. The strike attracted widespread attention with the help of wealthy society women like Alva Vanderbilt Bellmont and Ynez Mill Holland.

Within days of the strike starting, it turned ugly. The strikers were subjected to brutal, humiliating treatment by city police and paid strike breaking thugs.

WEBER: My grandmother told me a story about a policeman trying to arrest her or trying to grab her and she got into a physical fight with him and then broke away in the confusion. And she stopped and she looked in her hand and she saw that she had pulled hair out of his head and it was still in her fist.

FELDSHUH: Women trying to defend themselves were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and hauled off to jail.

BASS: Government offered these people no protection whatsoever. They were not valued. What was valued was, you know, having lots of money and any way you could get it was OK.

FELDSHUH: Some owners gave in to the union, but with the help of city government Blank and Harris were able to weather the strike at Triangle. The workers eventually returned to the factory without union recognition. It was back to business as usual until the day of the fire.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) FELDSHUH: On a Saturday afternoon in late March, 500 workers filed into the Triangle factory, most of them had already put in a 60- hour work week. No one was prepared for what was about to happen.

The fire broke out on the eighth floor at about 4:40 in the afternoon just as people were finishing up for the day. Investigators believe it was started by a discarded cigarette.

Highly flammable stacks of fabric and paper patterns caused the fire to spread quickly across the floor. The workers panicked and started running for the exits all at once. They had never had fire drills. There was no plan. Nobody knew what to do.

LEIGH BENIN, LABOR HISTORIAN: Triangle was in a new building so it should have been one of the safest places around, but the stairways were only two and a half feet wide.

The doors by law were allowed to open in although everyone knew it was much safer if they opened out. Everyone knew that sprinklers could save lives, but they weren't installed because the law didn't require it.

MICHAEL HIRSCH, HISTORIAN/GENEALOGIST: Government just refused to get involved to not be told how to run their business. It is believed by many to be a birth right in this country and for the people who came to this country they wanted in on that.

SUSAN HARRIS: My name is Susan Harris. My maiden name was Blank. My grandfather was one of the two owners of the Triangle factory. My grandfather came from Russia.

He always had a dream to get to America to start a business. I think, you know, he wanted to be successful. He wanted to have one of the bigger and better businesses.

HIRSCH: These men and their families, their lives were dramatically different from the people who lived so far downtown. They had many servants. They had a cook. They had housekeeper. You had a governess for the children.

Isaac Harris lived in 101st Street in one of these gorgeous townhouses. He's supposed to have put $100,000 into renovating this structure at a time when the average American is making between $300 and $600 per year.

They probably believed that they deserved it. They had earned it. It is one of the things we tend to celebrate. The idea that people can come here with an idea and rise as high as their ambition will take them.

FELDSHUH: Harris and Blank's ambition took them to the tenth floor of the Ash Building. Both owners were at work the day of the fire.

HARRIS: My aunt Mimi who was 4 years old at the time and my Aunt Henrietta who was 12 years came with their governess the day of the fire to meet their dad to go shopping.

FELDSHUH: Only minutes after the fire started, the eighth floor called in a frantic message to the executives on the tenth floor.

HARRIS: They were in his office when they heard the shouts of fire. By this time, there was a lot of smoke in the tenth floor. Mimi somehow got into the elevator.

And Max saw that she had a look of horror on her face and he at the last minute before the elevator doors closed grabbed her out. But they managed to go up the stairway and get up to the roof.

FELDSHUH: A New York University law professor in the building next door to Triangle heard the screams and rushed to the roof with his students. They lowered ladders down to the Ash Building's roof top below.

Ten minutes after the warning had been received, everyone own the top of the building had managed to escape the fire.

HARRIS: Something like 60 to 80 people were saved that way.

FELDSHUH: As the tenth floor office workers were scrambling to safety, the New York Fire Department was on its way to Triangle. The first engine arrived at 4:47 only 2 minutes after the alarm had been raised.

But they would be too late for many within the factory for there had been a crucial lapse in communication that would bring catastrophic results. The switch board operator on the tenth floor had taken the emergency call.

In the panic, she failed to alert the nearly 300 workers on the ninth floor. The flames had not reached them yet so they were oblivious to the fire raging beneath them and they lost vital minutes in the race to save themselves.


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Don Lemon. Here are your headlines. In Libya, French war planes destroyed at least five Libyan combat planes and two helicopters in Misrata.

The city is now one of the bloodiest fronts in this conflict. Gadhafi's tanks have started shelling the city once again. Rebels are trying to push back, but they only have light weapons.

A different story to the east where Libyan rebels have seized control of the key eastern city of Ajdabiya. Gadhafi's forces retreated after days of intense fighting.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched in protest in London on Saturday. Demonstrators are trying to stop proposed belt tightening by the British government, 214 people were arrested, about 84 were hurt including 31 officers when police stepped in. Two weeks after the massive earthquake triggered a tsunami in Japan, the casualty toll has reached a grim milestone. More than 10,000 people are dead and 17,000 others are still missing.

Former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro died Saturday after a 12-year battle with cancer. In 1984, Ferraro helped change the political landscape as the first female vice presidential candidate of a major U.S. political party. Geraldine Ferraro was 75 years old.

Those are the headlines at this hour. I'm Don Lemon. Keeping you informed, CNN, the most trusted name in news.


VINCENT MALTESE: My name is Vincent Maltese and I am related to three of the people that were killed in the fire. My grandmother Katharina that and my aunts were Lucia, she was 18 and Rosaria, she was 14.

They were burned in the fire because I have the death certificates and they didn't just say burned, they said charred. My grandmother started working in Triangle because a lot of the women in the neighborhood worked there.

She was an operator. Lucia was an operator just beginning and Rosaria was a floor girl. She used to bring the work to the people that were sewing. They worked on the ninth floor.

FELDSHUS: The ninth floor of the factory was arranged so that every possible space was taken up by a sewing machine. About 300 machines were crowded on tables with barely elbow room between them. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

The people working on the floor that day were totally unprepared when the fire exploded into the space. Panicking workers struggled toward the exits, which were soon blocked leaving the small passenger elevators as the only way out.

DENNIS CLANCY: My name's Dennis Clancy. I'm the great, great grandson of Joseph Ziot. He was one of the two elevator operators that day. He was about to get off work and the bell for the elevator started ringing incessantly.

When he gets to the ninth floor, the women are frantic. They're fighting to try to get on the elevator because there were flames behind them. The elevator was only supposed the hold about 12 people, but on some of those trips that he made they had near double that.

Each time he went back up, he could see the flames that were on them. He was going into the fire to save those people that he knew would die if he wasn't able to get back up there. He saved over 100 people that day.

Eventually people were so desperate to get off of the ninth floor. People were jumping into the elevator shaft when the car was not there so they end up landing several stories down on the top of the elevator car.

Finally the weight of all these people on top of it was too much for the elevator car to continue to make trips and it ended up slipping down to the basement. When he had the elevator car full and he had to make the trip down, seeing all those people's faces who were still stuck on the ninth floor.

Seeing the flames behind them, seeing women in window sills about to jump to their death, he said he would never be able to get the image out of his head.

FELDSHUH: By now, workers had started appearing on the window ledges of the ninth floor. The crowd on the street below implored them to hold on as the fire department raised their ladders.

But then the realization set in. The ladders were too short. They only reached as far as the sixth floor, almost 30 feet below the trapped ninth floor workers.

ERICKA LANSNER: My name is Ericka Lansner and my great aunt Fannie Lansner died in the fire. She was a floor lady on the ninth floor. So Fannie in the role as supervisor tried to usher as many people as she could into the elevator.

She remained the sort of beacon of calmness while there was so much panic going on around her. There were several women who tried to get her to run to the other side towards the Green Street exit where the stairwell was still passable and she refused to go.

She put all of the girls well being and safety ahead of her own. She was really one of the heroes of the fire. She fully expected for the elevator to come back and get her. It had already made eight or nine trips and it was not possible.

FELDSHUH: Meanwhile, thousands of New Yorkers had gathered on the street 90 feet below the burning factory. Many of them remembered seeing what appeared to be large bundles of cloth being thrown from the billing's upper floors.

The owners were protecting their goods, they thought, but when one of the bundles opened to reveal a women's legs, the full horror became apparent. They were jumping. The girls were jumping.

STACY SILVERSTEEN: My name is Stacy Silversteen and my great grandmother Silvia Regler survived the fire. She was in the dressing room changing into her street clothes after the closing bell rang and her good friend Rose Fybush ran in a panic screaming, pulled her out of the dressing room through the shop.

Rosa is pulling her towards the window and even as a child Silvia had a great fear of heights so she broke free from Rose, ran the opposite way and she said, my beautiful friend Rose Fybush jumped from the window.

And then, Silvia just remembered not being allowed to cross the street because the bodies were falling. She watched her friends and co-workers falling from the windows. Some of them holding hands. Some of them hugging. That's not something you can ever, ever forget.

FELDSHUH: The scenes on Washington Place in Green Street would stay with eyewitnesses forever. One reporter described how a young man helped young women up to the window sill as if he was helping them into a streetcar instead of eternity.

As groups of girls jumped together, they hit the ground with such force that they crashed right through the glass partition in the sidewalk. Eighteen minutes after the fire started, the last body fell to the ground. In all, more than 90 people jumped to their deaths.

BENIN: When I was a child, my grandmother told me that her cousin Rose had died in the Triangle fire. It was clear from the fact that she died of injuries at St. Vincent's Hospital that she's one of the people that jumped from that building.

This was a very deeply felt tragedy for my grandmother because you could see it in her face, you could hear it in her voice, a deep, deep sadness, a faraway look and she just would say, finally, what can you do?

And I took that to mean that it was too late to save Rose. She was just gone and there was nothing that could be done about, but we weren't going to forget that. This shouldn't have happened. It just shouldn't have happened.


FELDSHUH (voice-over): Outside the Ash Building that day, New York Fire Chief Edward Croaker was seeing his most dire predictions come true.

For years his pleas for improved fire safety had fallen on deaf ears and when firefighters entered the building, they discovered how sadly accurate his warnings had been.

RAYMOND KNOT: I'm Raymond Knot, a New York city fire marshal. My grandfather Angelo Knot was a fireman. He was one of the first responders to the Triangle Waist fire. My grandfather told me that women were jumping out the window holding on to their pocketbooks.

People were yelling don't jump, wait. He was in part of the recovery. They had to take the bodies and move them. He saw people melted together. I was at 9/11 and watching the people jump. It would be like one, two, three, people would jump out.

It must have been very similar to what my grandfather saw that day. Chief Croaker lobbied to make the workplace safer after a fire in Newark a few months earlier. Fire drills existed at the time but they weren't mandated. It was their option to do it and a lot of places wouldn't do it because it would interrupt their work time.

Sprinklers would have controlled the fire to give the people time to get out, but they just couldn't force a company to put sprinklers into their building. The bottom line is if there are no regulations, people will cut corners and they'll take the chance. FELDSHUH: As panicked people rushed to Washington Place to get news of their relatives, firefighters searched the ash building for survivors and began the task of removing the dead. Coroner Herman Holtshauser was there to supervise.

Despite being a veteran of the most apparent crime scenes, he was overwhelmed. "The New York Times" reported he sobbed like a child, lamenting that girls who had been carried up to work in an elevator that morning were now coming down charred on the end of a rope.

In the street, the police solemnly collected the scattered belongings of the victims. It had only been a matter of months since they had fought viciously with these same workers on the picket lines as they campaigned for better conditions. Now, they were carrying them away in makeshift coffins.

ELIZABETH WILSON: My name's Elizabeth Wilson and my grandfather's brother was Joseph Wilson and he died in the Triangle fire. He ran out of the building and ran back in because he forgot his father's gold pocket watch.

This was a prized object from Russia and probably the most valuable possession that the family had because they were really an extremely poor family. But he ran back in to get it and he never made it out.

He was engaged to be married to Rosie Solomon and she was a young woman, about 18 years old. She had planned to meet Joseph that night and he never arrived and she knew about the fire, everybody knew about the fire.

The next day which was Sunday she was in line early in the morning along the hundreds of other people waiting to view the bodies. And she finally got in, late afternoon and she came to box 34.

She recognized a ring and she asked the attendant if there would have been a pocket watch and they produced the pocket watch and they opened it up and her picture was inside. At that point, she just became hysterical and collapsed and had to be carried out.

FELDSHUH: Many of the badly burned corpses proved difficult to identify. One family claimed their daughter by noticing the cork inserts in her shoes. One mother recognized her child by the way her stocking was stitched.

A young girl recognized her mother's hair because she had braided it for her the morning of the fire. Day after day a succession of hearses pulled out of the morgue as families claimed their dead and began burying them.

On the lower east side and from Bedford Street to the battery, it seemed as if no block of downtown Manhattan had been spared a death. Violet Shockett on east Fifth Street, Sadie Nasbalm on East 6th street, Mary Floresta on East 13th street.

These were only three among the scores of funerals as the communities of the lower east side shared in their collective loss.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody was known to everybody on the east side then. The same people went to the same funerals every day.


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Don Lemon at the CNN Headquarters. Here are your headlines. In Libya, French war planes destroyed at least five Libyan combat planes and two helicopters in Misrata.

The city is now one of the bloodiest fronts in this conflict. Gadhafi's tanks started shelling the city once again, rebels are trying to push back but they only have light weapons.

A different story to the east where Libyan rebels have seized control of a key city of Ajdabiya. Gadhafi's forces retreated after days of intense fighting.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched in protest in London on Saturday. Demonstrators were trying to stop proposed belt tightening by the government, 214 people were arrested, about 84 were hurt including 31 officers when police stepped in.

Two weeks after the massive effort quake triggered a tsunami in Japan, the casualty toll has reached a grim milestone. More than 10,000 people are dead, 17,000 others are still missing.

Former democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro died Saturday after a 2-year battle with cancer. In 1984, she helped change the political landscape as the first female vice presidential candidate of a major U.S. political party. She was 75 years old.

Those are your headlines this hour. I'm Don Lemon. Keeping you informed. CNN, the most trusted name in news.


FELDSHUH: The victims' stories dominated the newspapers for days. Until early April when all but seven bodies had been laid to rest with nobody able to identify them, a political battle broke out over what to do with these last seven corpses.

The union wanted to hold a public funeral, but the city refused to allow these unnamed victims to become martyrs to the cause of organized labor. Fearful of a mass demonstration, they planned to bury them in a city plot in Brooklyn.

The unions were outraged. On April 5th, the same day as the city buried the unidentified out in Brooklyn, the unions led over 100,000 people in a symbolic funeral in Manhattan to honor all of the fire's victims.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People really felt the horror of this event even if they didn't have people in this fire. I mean, it spoke to the whole city. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People were outraged. They poured into the streets. Hundred thousand marched in the funeral march that was about mourning, but it was also about protest.

FELDSHUH: With over 300,000 people looking on, shirtwaist workers, activists, union members and victims' families silently marched through an icy rain to Washington Place. As they arrived and caught sight of the Ash Building, the eerie quiet suddenly gave way to a heart piercing cry, which one of the newspapers described as the most impressive expression of human grief ever heard in the city.

In the days that followed grief turned to rage and accusations began to fly as people asked who was to blame? Was it the building inspectors who allowed inadequate fire escapes? The legislature which failed to require safety standards or the Triangle owners who ignored recommendations to have fire drills in their crowded factory?

As more and more survivor accounts for printed, one appalling narrative came to the forefront. A story was emerging that the young women had been trapped behind a locked door on the ninth floor. There were two exit doors on that floor. Each day the workers were funneled to the Green Street exits so their bags could be checked for stolen material. Had the owners locked the Washington Place exit door to prevent workers from stealing a few scraps of fabric?

Finally, on April 11th, Harris and Blank were indicted on charges of manslaughter. They hired Max Stoier, a lawyer and a star of the legal profession to defend them. It took the all-male jury less than two hours to return a verdict. Not guilty on all counts. The families were beside themselves and they waited in the street for the owners to come out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When the acquittal was announced Rosie and Katie's brother David was outside the courtroom. He screamed at them. You call this justice? You're murderers, murderers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: From a personal point of view, I'm happy that my grandfather didn't have to go to jail. Looking at it from the victims and their families' point of view, if my daughter had died in that fire and, you know, he hadn't been my grandfather, I probably would have shot him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They had insurance and they made a lot of money from the insurance from that fire. So despite the fact that 146 people died, that company did not suffer. They went right back into business and they made money on the fire.

FELDSHUH: Despite the verdict, the fire had galvanized the movement demanding change from Tambellini Hall, the corrupt political machine that ran New York City. They wanted government to show it could represent the rights of all people, not just the privileged.

ALFRED E. SMITH IV: My name is Alfred E. Smith IV. My great grandfather was the governor. He was a typical guy. They were very, very pro-business. They didn't really look out for the people. They looked out for the people who were giving them money. And if it's not broken, you know, don't fix it. But, you know, he found out, boy, it is broken. The fire brought everybody together. There was such overwhelming sadness and guilt. That scene of those women just wouldn't go away and Tamany had to change or die.

FELDSHUH: Al Smith and Robert Wagner set up the factory investigating commission. They brought on board many of the leading reformers of the day, Francis Perkins who would become the first woman secretary of labor was on the commission.

She happened to be in Washington Square Park the day of the fire and witnessed the young women jumping out of the windows. She would go on to say that the new deal started March 25th, 1911. Also asked to participate were Rose Schneiderman, the legendary labor union activist and Clara Lemlick, the catalyst of the shirtwaist uprising.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The factory investigating commission went out and had investigations all over the state, Al Smith and Robert Wagner themselves actually went into these factories. It was an exhaustive investigation.

Al smith was amazed to see the women and children working 12, 13, 14-hour days. It was a really a defining moment for him. He went from being run of the mill Tamany politician to a leader of reform.

The commission went beyond the fire. They looked at the wages, they looked at the hours. The fire was just the beginning of an all- out assault on big business and what they were doing to the workers. The workplace was changed forever.

FELDSHUH: The commission's findings led to the enactment of laws in New York that mandated safety standards, minimum wage, support for people when they lose their jobs and assistance when they're too old to work. What started in New York paved the way for FDR's new deal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first duty of our statesmanship is to bring capital and manpower together.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The legislation that came out of Triangle fire kind of evened the scales a little bit. It gave working people some support from the government so that they could organize unions, they could fight. That was a huge turning point for labor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Through the unions they weren't just yeds and honkies and waps anymore. They were American workers. They had something. They could be part of this country in a way they couldn't be before.

FELDSHUH: The new deal demonstrated how government could protect working people where business had failed.



FELDSHUH: Each year on the anniversary of the fire, where the building still stands, the union commemorates 146 victims and the reforms inspired by their deaths.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are here to remind ourselves that we face the same threats today that these Triangle workers faced 100 years ago.

BRUCE RAYNOR, WORKERS UNITED/SEIU FORMERLY ILGWU: The truth is most of these factories were like that because that was what was acceptable behavior.

It isn't unfortunately just a few bad apples. Workers need to be protected whether they're in Bangladesh or Brooklyn or whether they're an oil rig, garment factory or a coal mine. We had it then and we have it now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People forget the Triangle fire at their peril. This whole movement against regulation of industry and people want to know what would the deregulated industry look like, look at the bodies on the sidewalk outside the Triangle Building.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Katerina Maltese, Lucia Maltese, Rosaria Maltese.












FELDSHUH: May you all rest in peace.