MY REMINISCENCES OF THE TRIANGLE FIRE
It was a day that was bursting with life--a day full of the first breaths of springand fate ruled that on this day, l46 young lives should be snuffed out in a terrible manner; they were destroyed by the horrible Triangle fire.
Actually, the direct death toll should be tallied at 147, because a Jewish young man, whose fiancee worked at Triangle, had been ill in a hospital, and when he learned of the fire, he jumped out of bed and died of a heart attack.
There were many indirect victims of the fire. Mothers who lost their daughters--girls full of life and hope, brides-to-be, innocent--could not contain their grief, and many of them passed away before their time.
What happened that morning? I'll tell what I remember, as one of the girls who worked in the Triangle company as a blouse operator, and how I escaped, through a coincidence, the fate of my comrades.
Four of us girls, who comprised the price committee, and the chairlady used to get together frequently on settling of prices for the different work. Our regular meeting place in the shop was at the window near which there were water buckets for use in a fire.
Though we sat at that spot many times, it's remarkable that just on this day, I first noticed that the buckets were empty, as they had been all along. But on that particular morning, the day of the tragedy, I remarked to my colleagues that the buckets were empty, and that if anything were to happen, they would be of no use. This was said in passing, as we were preoccupied with talk about work, friends, etc.
Then we saw the manager approaching, so we quickly ended our conversation. His name was Bonstein (?); I think he was a relative of the bosses (we never saw them). He was a short person, with broad shoulders and piercing eyes. He always had a cynical smile on his face. He was strict and unscrupulous with the workers. But I must admit he was very clever, and very apt for his job. When he would see a group of us in conversation, he would sidle over, calmly, with the cynical smile on his face, on the chance that he might be able to pick up a word or two of what we were saying. Of course, as soon as we saw him approach, we would immediately change the subject and start talking about theater, concerts, opera, etc.
One day he said to us: "It is a remarkable thing! We're living in such wonderful times! When did workers ever know about theaters and concerts? And now--they occupy almost all the seats at performances..." And we replied, "Mr.Bonstein, the workers are more entitled to enjoy these than the bosses are."
As he came near us on that fateful day, one girl asked him, "Mr. Bonstein, why is there no water in the buckets? In case of a fire, there would be nothing with which to fight it," He became enraged at our group of price committee members, and with inhuman anger replied: "If you'll burn, there'll be something to put out the fire."
The clock struck 8 o'clock, and we went to our machines. A cheerful feeling prevailed all over the floor. Perhaps it was because one of the girls came to work that day with a diamond ring which her fiance had given her the night before. I remember that the girl's name was Esther; she was a very pretty and lively young lady, and on this occasion especially her joy was contagious, enveloping all around her. We who worked nearby were, as a result, feeling very content; we worked, sewed, joked, and were oblivious to the passage of time, unaware that it already was close to 12 o'clock.
At that time, we worked until 4 P.M. every day, including Saturday, and we had only a half-hour for lunch. The fire broke on a Saturday, on March 25, 1911, and it happened just a short time before the workers were set to leave the factory.
This recalls an incident. There were very few men in the shop; the hundreds of girls were mostly Jewish, a few were Italians. I and many others were still practically "greenhorns," we had been in the country only a year or less. For many, as for me, it was only the second job, for others the first that they had had. Most of us were not yet 20 years old. Across from me and my co-workers sat a boy, Jack Klein. His face reflected his great intelligence, and many of the girls would gaze at him frequently. On this particular day, he went out for lunch, and stayed late. In fact, he didnt return until 3 P.M., an hour before quitting time. We told him that we had been worried about him, afraid something had happened to him. He told us that he had gone to the bank to take out his small bit of saved capital, because he was going to open a small drug store. We all laughed and wished him luck. But--he was one of the victims.
How did I escape? Well, on this occasion, as usual, I and my co-worker, Minnie Bornstein got up from our machines at five minutes before 4 and went to the ladies' room to change our dress. The manager came over to us and said that there still were five minutes more of work, and that we should go back to our machines. If not, he said, very sternly, we wouldn't be permitted to come in on Monday.
Never before this time had he said anything about my stopping work five minutes early. I had been active in a strike earlier, and was not intimidated by the manager's ire. I told him, "That's OK with me, Mr. Bonstein; I'm not going back to my machine, and I won't come back here on Monday."
My co-worker Minnie accompanied me to the dressing room. Suddenly, she recalled she had left her purse on her machine and she wanted to go back and get it. I told her that we should get dressed over first, and she could pick up her purse on the way back, just not to let the manager think we were giving In to him. She agreed. However, almost immediately it became apparent that we could not go back to the machines, and because we were in this part of the shop rather than at the machines, we both were saved.
Esther, who had made us all so happy as the result of her high spirits because of the diamond ring she was given by her fiance, went back to her machine from the dressing roomand perished in the flames.
We were among the first ones to leave the ninth floor to go home. When we got to the back elevator (we would leave only by the back, only exit on one side, because the firm wanted to check on all workers to make sure they weren't taking anything out with them) we heard screams. At the elevator were two girls, orphans, who lived with their grandmother. One of them asked me, "Mary, what's all the screaming about?" I told her it was like everytime, everyone was shoving to get out first at the end of the day. At this point, the elevator came to the ninth floor, and a young man emerged. His sister also worked in our shop, and when he saw her standing there, he pushed her into the elevator, without saying anything about a fire. Later, we learned that he himself did not get back into the elevator, and that he was among the victims.
We still didn't know there was a fire. We were standing at the elevator, waiting for our friend Neda; she always wanted to leave by the elevator, while we usually didn't want to wait for the elevator and used to leave by the stairs. Neda arrived, and said: "Mary, come quickly!" We took to the stairs, and when we got to the seventh floor, we saw the flames. The fire surged through the windows; everyone panicked, ran, screamed, and didn't know what to do. I became very frightened, and noticed that my friend was no longer with me. In the confusion, I attempted to run back upstairs, but someone stopped me. I don't remember how I got downstairs; I only had the feeling that a strong hand guided me. When I was in the street, I saw how people were jumping from the windows and falling like flies.
The tragedy was even greater because of the fact that the fireman's ladders were too short and couldn't reach the ninth and tenth floors. Also, the nets spread to catch the jumpers were too weak, and many plunged right through to their deaths. I saw a number of firemen crying as they witnessed victims of the fire killed as they broke through the nets.
A forelady from the ninth f1oor, whom I knew well and who that day had told me she was preparing work for me for Monday, jumped from the high floor and was saved by her coat catching on a hook at the sixth floor, and she remained hanging there.
In the confusion, I watched the fire and saw how the rescue operation was conducted under conditions of panic. Flames poured through the windows of the top floors and thick smoke billowed. How I got to 18 Rutgers St., where I lived, I'll never knew. But I do remember coning into the house and screamingly asking whether my friend Neda had arrived. They told me she hadn't. So I ran back to the fire site, but by that time the authorities didn't let anyone get close to the building, I saw that, besides ambulances, they were bringing caskets.
The screams and sobs all around were deafening. Water was being poured onto the flames, the firemen and police were doing their utmost, but they were not prepared for so overwhelming an emergency, and consequently the number of victims was so large.
A group of men made a human ladder of themselves in an attempt to make it possible for girls hunched in fear at the windows not yet on fire to cross over to the next building, to which there was a small bridge (or passage.) But all the men, about 10 of them, fell down, not being able to bear up under the weight, and were killed together with those who tried to save themselves. We were all deeply moved by the heroism and tried to kiss their bodies as they were being removed to the morgue.
Working conditions at the Triangle shop were quite bearable, for those days. Wage rates weren't too bad; we had won them by fighting for them, through stoppages, etc. The shop, both on the eighth and ninth floors, was light and airy, and was, more or less, clean, although pieces of cloth from the cutting room were strewn on the floor.
The bosses held themselves aloof from the workers; we never saw them in the shop. They had their offices on the tenth floor, and rarely showed themselves. We dealt only with the manager.
Yes, the doors of the shop were kept locked.
My own machine was located near the locked front doors, and I often looked with fear at the darkness that loomed through the half-glassed door, which made me feel as if some secret force were peering out from there. And it was before this door that the greatest number of victims were caught; they had surged to the door, hoping to escape, but couldnt break through, because the door always was securely locked.
Just how the workers conducted themselves inside at the height of the fire, I don't know, as I went down five minutes early, and thereby was among those who escaped with their lives.
When the bosses were brought to trial, among the witnesses called were those who had worked near the locked door. I was one of them. In response to questions of judges and lawyer., (including Jacob Panken) I replied:
"In the morning, when we were going up to work, both elevators (front and back) would be operating. But on leaving, only the one in the back was allowed to run. This was because the company directed a watchman to search the girls' pocketbooks, in which we used to carry our lunches. As the bosses wanted to save the expense of having another watchman at the front, they allowed only one exit to be used for all three floors.
"We considered it to be the greatest insult to have to open our pocketbooks and show that we weren't stealing anything. The bosses lawyers said this was necessary because the workers brought along these pocketbooks with the intention of slipping out some "waists.
"I retorted, heatedly, that they should be ashamed of spreading such slanders. The fact was that, even if the workers had wanted to steal anything, it would have been impossible, because when bundles of work were distributed, every item was counted and listed on the tickets. And when the work was completed, everything was counted again.
The bosses lawyers made all sorts of excuses, attempting to defend the employers on keeping the door locked, in face of another girls testimony that even when the fire already had broken out, and she was among the first to reach the elevator, she had to show the watchman the contents of her pocketbook...
In my testimony I stated that if the front elevator had also been in use and if the front door had been open, there would not have been so many victims. I pointed to the lock on the door, which was brought in as evidence, to corroborate my statements.
A judge or a lawyer, I don't remember whichasked me whether I thought the fire was started by the company. I replied that while the company spokesmen claimed they didn't know just where the fire broke out, the fact was that this wasn't the first, but the third fire at the company, which could be verified very easily.
The company lawyer jumped up, interrupting me, and started to shout that I wasn't telling the truth, that I had deliberately come to court in a black dress with a white collar in order to impress the jury.
I told him that no deeper impression was needed than the 147 innocent, young victims of the Triangle Company, the locked door, and the refusal of the bosses to recognize even their indirect responsibility for what had happened.
In the following days of the trial, we survivors of the fire no longer were allowed in court. The families of the victims were not permitted to enter either, because when they would see the bosses, they sought to attack them.
The Triangle Company bosses went free. "Justice" found them not guilty. In those days--and also today--there was no proper measure of justice for lives of workers. The Triangle company was found not guilty, though it had been responsible in the fire that snuffed out 147 lives. But this same "justice" later condemned the martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti, because they hadn't killed anyone and had fought for true justice.
But although the Triangle bosses were let off, apparently their consciences must have bothered them, or else they wished to temper the wrath that was aroused at them. They sent agents to the parents of the victims, or to other relatives, and offered them a certain sum of money as a reparation for their loss. I know there were some who accepted this money. The company claimed it was giving this money to help support the survivors or to give them an opportunity to go to the "country" to recover from their experiences. They thought they could pay off their crimes in this way.
When the company agents came to me with their money offer, Abrams, then my young comrade, (now my deceased husband) showed them the door.
The tragedy steeled us in our later battles for the trade union and libertarian-socialist movements to which we devoted our lives.
Now, a few more reminiscences of what occurred at that historic workers tragedy:
Most of the victims were from the ninth floor. The flames rapidly enveloped the shop and the girls didn't have a chance to save themselves.
On both floors (9th and 10th) were employed about 500 girls and a few men. Incidentally, on top of everything else, the elevator cables broke in the middle of the fire and those inside were crushed.
In the panic of the fire, I recall that three girls wrapped themselves in the American flag and jumped out the window together. They landed on the glass manhole cover on the sidewalk and broke through it Their bodies were found later buried in the deep.
Among the dead were a mother and two young sons who all worked in the Triangle Company. They suffocated from smoke while taking cover in a small room in the shop. Several of us survivors later went to their house, a small room somewhere in the East Side. A poor room it was, virtually bare, with a violin hanging on the wall. We imagined we heard plaintive, sorrowful airs coming from the violin...we left quietly, leaving, the violin hang...
A few weeks later, I visited the grandmother of the two sisters, who had asked me, at the elevator, what the shouting and screaming was all about. I was accompanied by a reporter from the Forward. An 80 year-old woman opened the door. She had a "chipik" (?) on her head; a gnarled, sorrowful old woman. She knew me, and called out: "My grandchildren, Friday night, played a record on the victrols, 'God and His Judgment is Just. I ask you," she said, lifting her hands to heaven, it Your Judgment truly just? And she said to me: "You're an athiest, so God didn't punish you, but my granddaughters were pious girls, so it must be better to be like you and not to serve God..." The old woman broke into tears, and we barely were able to quiet her.
Later I went to visit the parents of Esther, who just before the tragedy had been given a ring by her fiance. The father thanked God that his son, who also had worked at Triangle, had survived. The Mother was broken up, and she told us that Friday night her daughter was radiantly happy; she had played a Russian record on the phonograph, I Didn't Come to Say Goodbye, and the girl, had sung along so heartily...
The funeral took place several days after the tragedy. All New York--certainly, all of Jewish New York--came to the funeral.
The funeral procession was most moving. These young people--mainly young Jewish girls, pretty as pictures, were being brought to their eternal rest.
Practically all of them were to be married soon, most of them had fiances among the youthful community, their parents also were quite young, people in early middle age.
Choked sobs were heard all around. The people were crying, the streets were crying--and the skies also were crying that day. Just as if heaven and earth were taking part in the tragedy, on that day of the funeral it was a pouring rain. You could touch the sorrow in the air.
That spring of 1911 we mourned our dead comrades, the victims of a society which was concerned only with the profits of an individual and not with the welfare of the many, of the working masses. The Triangle victims were martyrs in the fight for social justice, and the labor movement will always remember them as those who, with their young lives, paved the way for a better world with a more just society, a world free from exploitation, in which equal rights for all will be respected.