The Great New York Tragedy Before 9/11

By: Daniel Nardini

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - CommentaryThis year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most tragic events that have altered not only New York City but the United States. I am speaking about the Triangle Waist factory fire. The fire occurred by accident, but before it was extinguished it killed 146 workers—mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women. Until the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, New York City had never experienced so many people die in such a horrible fashion since.

Prior to the fire, factory sweatshops were an everyday reality in the American industrial landscape. In these type of factories, workers were forced to labor in over-crowded rooms, ventilation was poor, and there were no enforced safety standards. Such conditions existed in almost all sweatshop factories, and the factory owned by the Triangle Waist Company was no exception. The Triangle Waist Company manufactured primarily women’s clothing. It would be in this factory that a fire was accidentally started on March 25, 1911.

Due to poor ventilation the fire spread quickly. Many of the workers could not get out of the building—most emergency exit doors were locked or blocked, the emergency window ladders failed to work, the stairways were too narrow, and worse there was no sprinkler system nor equipment to fight the fire. The fire eventually engulfed the whole building. Many workers jumped out of the windows to their deaths to escape the fire. In the end 146, mostly women, were killed in the fire.

This tragedy had far-reaching consequences. The ranks of unions swelled, and unions began to fight for stricter safety standards. Even local political officials in New York City started to work for a stricter code of fire prevention. The legislation that was passed in New York City became a model for other major cities—more than one stairway leading out of a building, emergency exits that had to remain clear 24 hours a day, sprinkler systems that worked, and vastly improved ventilation systems. Moreover laws were enacted to hold factory owners accountable for their actions.

What happened in 1911 marked the beginning of how factory working conditions in the United States and especially worker safety vastly improved from what it was. That tragedy has helped to change the working environment we are employed in today. More than that, the laws passed since make those employers who break these laws more accountable for their actions. Just as September 11th has changed how Americans view security today, the Triangle Waist factory fire has changed our working environment.

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