American Experience Marks Centennial of Triangle Fire, February 28
Before September 11, 2001, New York’s worst workplace disaster occurred March 25, 1911. It was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that claimed the lives of 146 factory workers--half teenagers as young as 14, 84% of those lost were women. Like 9/11, it was a disaster that would markedly change life in America.
Many books have been written about the Triangle Fire, and it’s been the subject of a few documentaries and movies, however none convey the horror of the event as well as Michael Murphy’s dispassionate narration and the facts. On Monday evening at 10 p.m. (Eastern), American Experience (PBS) presents Triangle Fire, a documentary that recalls the fire and the changes it brought about (no longer would employment practices be a private matter between owner and employee; they became a matter of public policy).
Many of the workers were Lower East Side immigrants earning $2 per 14-hour workday for a six-day week. They were supporting (or helping to support) their families, packed into tenement apartments and struggling to realize “the American Dream,” a dream that factory owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck had achieved.
Triangle Fire details the facts about the fire, but also reports the events of the previous year when factory workers called a strike, demanding better pay, less hours, and better working conditions. In an attempt to unionize all shirtwaist factory workers, the strike succeeded with many businesses. However, Triangle finally settled by offering employees higher wages and less hours, but no union. The hostile conditions under which the workers labored and struck against were largely the cause of the casualties.
What started the fire? A cigarette in a trash can. What ended it? The New York City Fire Department had the blaze under control in 30 minutes; workplace reforms that were sparked by the Triangle Fire still protect American workers. Fifty people burned to death on the factory floor, 19 plunged to their death in an elevator shaft, 20 were on a fire escape that detached from the building, dropping them to their deaths, and others leapt from eighth floor windows—one survived the leap, but only for a few days.
Horrifying, heartbreaking, and historical, Triangle Fire is a moving account of the cost of the many benefits we now take for granted.