Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later

SURVIVOR ORAL HISTORIES

Pauline Pepe

Pauline Pepe was a machine operator who did tucking for the Triangle Waist Company. She worked on the eighth floor of the Asch Building, and was a survivor of the Triangle fire March 25, 1911. She was interviewed by unidentified people, March 19, 1986.

Download a copy of the audio file.

Listen to the interview (19:48)

To listen to the interviews, you need the Apple Quicktime plugin.
Download it here.

Interview Transcript

[Simultaneous conversations and laughter.]

Daughter: . . . She still remembers, you know, "I never got that twelve dollars; I left my pocketbook there." I said, "They'll give it to you, Ma, don't worry."

Pepe: Well, I totally thought, twelve dollars, my God. I left the pocketbook, everything; coat and everything. When we come down it wasn't so cold, it was all right. It was all right.

Daughter: It was only in March.

Pepe: So we - then we went out and met - we were all crying. I was looking for my friend. Sure enough, I found my friend.

Q: What was the name of your friend? What - what was - do you remember what her name was?

Pepe: My name?

Daughter: No. Your friend's name.

Q: Your friend's name.

Pepe: Oh, I don't remember.

Daughter: Mama, think of it. Lizzy?

Pepe: Oh, she's dead.

Daughter: What was her name?

00:00:35

Pepe: I don't remember. I don't know.

Daughter: Lizzy Pepina [ph] you told me.

Pepe: Lizzy Pepina [ph].

Q: Ah, there you go [Slight laugh.] Your daughter knows the story better.

Daughter: I know the story because I've heard it ever since I'm a little girl.

Pepe: Yes. Well, she passed away anyway.

Q: But she got out there with you?

Pepe: Yes. I was wondering. She didn't get out with me. I was wondering - I missed her. She worked in another row of machines. We were right near the cut - cutters, you know. And we could see everything there. So, as soon as she heard a fire, she ran to the other door, too. Naturally. But I didn't see her.

00:01:08

I - I ran in then I saw her downstairs. She had gone already. It was a big crowd. You know, we all fell over. And then they had to take us down. You know, it was terrifying.

Q: Sure.

Pepe: We were holding the banister; everybody was holding the banister. I mean, it was about a hundred and fifty people there. How could you hold the banister? We all tumbled down. When we got there the firemen wouldn't let us out because the people were coming down and when they were sure, then we came out. And I was looking for her. Sure, she was right in front of me; I didn't even know it.

Q: That's good. That's really good.

Pepe: And I followed her.

Q: So, what part of New York were you living in then?

Pepe: Oh, let me see, I think it was Mott Street.

Q: Mott Street?

00:01:45

Pepe: Mott Street, yeah.

Q: And when you were working at - at the Triangle - at the company - were you - were you working on the machines? Were you an operator?

Pepe: Yes. I was doing the tucking. I didn't even - my mother didn't want me to go to work but my friend says . . .

Q: [Exclamation of surprise.]

Pepe: . . . my friend says, "Come on, we have a good time there." All young girls were there and girls to be married, engaged, and everything. So I thought I'd take a chance. We used to have a lot of fun. We used to walk right over on - what is it? 4th Street, I think.

David: Right.

Pepe: That big arch there. That big - yeah.

Q: That big - what's it called?

David: Washington Square Park.

00:02:19

Q: Yes, Washington Square Park.

Pepe: Yes, Washington - yes. So I enjoyed working there. We had a lot of fun.

Q: Yes.

Pepe: So, well, that's it.

[Laughter from surrounding group.]

Pepe: That's the story.

David: Why was the door locked? Did - who kept that locked.

Pepe: Well, you know, they were afraid that the women would take blouses and run in. Now, how could they take any blouses?

Q: Did anyone ever do that? Did - did you ever hear about anyone being caught doing that?

00:02:44

Pepe: No. No. They wouldn't. No. Everybody was doing individual things. One was tucking, one was making sleeves, one was making this. They weren't making the whole waist. They weren't sewing that whole waist. No, they didn't bother. The young girls wouldn't bother. I don't think so; I don't know. But, you know, the bosses thought that they would get away with it.

Daughter: They were afraid that they would steal.

Pepe: They were very strict. But the superintendent was very nice. I think he passed away in the fire. He was a lovely man. He used to come around and . . .

Daughter: Do you remember any of the names of the people, Mom, the men?

Pepe: Huh?

Daughter: Do you remember any of the names of the men?

Pepe: No, I don't know the men. They never came down. Just the superintendent came down.

Daughter: Who was he? Do you remember him?

00:03:24

Pepe: I don't know the name. I forget. I don't know that. He used to look around to see how we were doing, you know. We were enjoying this and that. And he was very nice. I think he passed - I think he got caught in the fire, I don't know. Because he was trying to see everybody to go out there.

Q: He was trying to make sure that everyone [inaudible].

Pepe: Yes.

David: I think his name was Bernstein.

Pepe: I think so.

David: Bernstein.

Pepe: I think so; Bernstein. Yeah. He was a lovely short - lovely man. Very nice. Used to . . .

Q: Sorry, go ahead. Go ahead. All right, how many hours a week did you work?

Pepe: Oh, I think eight hours.

00:04:00

Q: Eight hours a day. And then did you work six days a week or five days a week?

Pepe: Seven. We went on Saturday. This was a Saturday when the fire started. We got off at four o'clock. Yeah, we got off at four o'clock.

Daughter: She worked six days, forty-eight hours.

Q: For twelve dollars.

Pepe: Yeah, twelve dollars. Can you imagine? Now they must get a hundred.

Daughter: Hundred? Ma, I think maybe five hundred. [Laughter among the surrounding group.]

Q: I wish.

Pepe: Can you imagine us working for twelve dollars? We thought it was wonderful. We didn't know.

David: In them days.

Daughter: I can remember working for fifty cents an hour.

00:04:31

Pepe: Those days, seventy-five years ago, you must remember. That's a pretty long time.

Q: So what did your - what did your mom say when you told her you were going to go work there? Because you said that - that your mom - your mother didn't want you to go . . .work in the factory.

Pepe: They didn't want me to go to work. So my friend encouraged me, "Aw, let's come. We have a good time there." So I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it, really. We had our lunch together, we had our lunch - oh, we had a lot of fun. A lot of young girls. A lot of Jewish young girls who were married, engaged. They were lovely girls. We had so much fun there. I enjoyed it very much.

We worked there quite a - I don't know, I think it was a year or so.

Q: You worked there for a year. Can you - can you describe what the room looked like? The room that you worked in.

Pepe: It was a very big place. Oh, my God, I couldn't even - just a big place with machines and windows and - a lot of windows with shades. That's what they had.

Q: And you were all very close to each other? The machines were right next to each other?

00:05:29

Pepe: We had a big row of machines, sure. Oh, yes. We had a big row of machines. There was plenty of machines. Oh, yeah. I happened to be right near where the cutters were - see? They used to have tables full of material, that very fine lingerie, you know. They used to make beautiful blouses.

I used to do all the tucking. Hundreds and hundreds of yards of tucking.

Q: [Laughs.]

David: Do you remember what happened after the fire? Was there a big funeral for it? Do you remember that?

Pepe: A big what?

David: A big funeral after the fire.

Pepe: I don't remember anything. I never went back anymore. I went home - the man took us home. He was very nice. We were both crying, you know, so he asked us where we lived and we told him. And they took us right home.

00:06:12

When we got home, my God, my mother, my father, they didn't know what happened. I was all - no coat, no - no jacket or nothing. And my sister got St. Vitus' dance; she got so scared. It was terrible. My mother says, "Uh-oh."

And they didn't - I said I hope they don't find out, you know. The - right away, you know, the news.

Q: Yes, right. Right.

Pepe: Oh, but I . . .

Q: But you never went back to the company?

Pepe: No.

Q: You never went back to the . . .

Pepe: I never went back nowhere. I never worked anymore. My mother wouldn't let me go any more to work.

Q: But you did go to work elsewhere?

00:06:43

Daughter: Clerical, and later on, yeah. Yeah.

Pepe: When I got ill, sure. I was nineteen when I was there.

Q: How much money did you earn working as a clerical? Do you remember? Was it more money or was it around the same?

Pepe: Where?

Q: When you worked at the cleric . . .

Daughter: When you worked at another job.

Pepe: Oh, well, it was a little more. Twenty - I worked in the Sam Stanger Hilder [?] Brothers, in an office. I'll never forget their names. Sam Stanger Hilder [?] Brothers, with the - with who? With . . .

Daughter: I don't know. [Slight laugh.]

Pepe: Uncle John's wife.

00:07:13

Daughter: Oh, Helen.

Pepe: Helen took us . . .

Daughter: Her sister-in-law.

Pepe: Yes.

Daughter: Who worked with Scribner Brothers.

Pepe: Sam Stanger had the office, like, you know writing and something, you know. It was very nice. That I liked. It was very nice. Yes, I stayed there quite a while. Then I quit.

Daughter: Then you got married.

Pepe: Then I got engaged and married and that's all.

[Laughter by the surrounding group.]

Q: That's all?

00:07:32

Q: And here we are! Here we are! Seventy five years later! [Laughter by the surrounding group.]

Pepe: And here I'm. [Laughs.] And look - I've lived so long. I can't imagine; the years go so by - so quick. I don't know. I can't imagine I'm that old. And nobody believes it.

Q: Uh-huh.

Pepe: I am. I was born in 1891 and I am.

Daughter: She's ninety-five. She'll be ninety-five.

Q: Do you remember . . .

Pepe: I'll be ninety-five May 17.

Q: That's great.

Pepe: Having a good party.

Q: Oh, I bet you are. I bet you'll have a terrific time.

00:08:00

Pepe: Yeah.

Q: Do you - do you remember the strikes, the early strikes around that time, when you were working in - for the garment shops?

Pepe: Listen, I forgot it. They thought I got money, you know, from them.

Q: Who?

Pepe: They sent us away. A lot of people say, "Oh, you must have got a lot of money because you were saved." I says no. They sent us away on a vacation. Two weeks.

Q: Who paid for it?

Pepe: They did.

Q: The company paid for it?

Pepe: The company must have paid for it because they sent us away. We were about twelve girls. We had a heck of a good time there.

00:08:28

Q: Where did you go?

Pepe: Oh, who remembers? Someplace; I don't remember.

Daughter: Mama, what did the Red Cross have to do with this?

Pepe: The Red Cross sent us, that's right.

Q: The Red Cross . . .

Daughter: They must have paid.

Q: The Red Cross paid.

Pepe: They paid.

Daughter: Oh, they were wonderful, those people.

Q: The union paid the Red Cross?

David: Sure.

00:08:42

Pepe: The Red Cross . . .

David: The union staged a big fund-raising effort.

Pepe: They're wonderful, those people.

Daughter: So what happened while you were on that vacation for two weeks? Tell them what happened; what happened there.

Pepe: Well, there was another fire.

Q: What happened? [incredulously]

Pepe: One of the houses were burning. I says, my God, are we going to get stuck here, too?

[Laughter by the surrounding group.]

Pepe: I said it's a good thing it's far away. When we heard the engines and I says, oh my God, some more fires!

00:09:06

[Laughter by the surrounding group.]

Pepe: But it was a lovely place. We enjoyed - we lived in - all together. We had such a lovely time.

Q: Was that in New York or - in upstate New York?

Pepe: Oh, upstate. It was in a country place. Yeah. I don't remember where but it was a country place.

Q: You don't remember where.

Pepe: We had a real good - lovely food and everything. We enjoyed it very much. You know, we were all scared so they thought they'd give us a vacation. Well, that was very nice.

Q: Did you all talk about the fire together afterwards?

Pepe: Oh, yes.

00:09:33

Q: And just like how everyone got out.

Pepe: Oh, sure. We were lucky. Yeah.

Q: Yes.

Pepe: And there was quite a few. But I don't - I don't remember now any older one. I don't remember. They got - oh, I don't know.

Q: Do you - do you remember anything about - about the union's activities that - the Lad--the garment workers' union and their activities, like around the Triangle fire building, or around the company?

Pepe: No. We never heard anything.

Q: You never heard anything about . . .

Pepe: No.

Q: . . . those unions? Because I . . .

Pepe: We - we just went to work and that's all. Come home; go in and come home.

00:10:08

Q: Did you ever hear anyone talking about the union when you were at work, or people bad-mouthing it or saying good things?

Pepe: No.

Q: You never heard anything at all.

Pepe: No. We were thinking of work and we never thought of anything else.

Q: You just thought of work. I know.

Pepe: We had to work. We had to do so much, anyway - see? But I only done tucking, that's all. That was easy.

Q: Uh-huh.

Pepe: Yards and yards of tucking. They would go in the basket, you know, under there. It was very nice; we enjoyed it. We were all - my friend, we were all together, you know.

Q: Did they - sorry - did they train you to do that when you first started working at the - at the shop? Did they train you to do tucking?

00:10:42

Pepe: Oh, I knew the machine.

Q: Oh, you knew the machine already?

Pepe: Yes. I knew, yeah. I knew. We knew the machine. Oh, yeah. It was very nice. We'd just press and it'd go, that's all. It was very nice. Just push the pedal and then we'd go - the machine'd go. We had yards and yards of tucking. Oh, my God.

That's where the cutters got all that stuff and they were cutting there - see?

Ann: It was piece work. They would cut one part for the sleeves for someone. Give the back to someone.

Pepe: Oh, yeah.

David: Ann - Ann was an operator, too.

Q: Oh, really?

00:11:12

Ann: For twenty years.

Q: Oh, really?

David: Yeah, so she knows.

Q: [inaudible]

Ann: Oh, in the city. And then I worked out here most of the time.

Daughter: Ann does - used to do the same thing you did, Ma.

Pepe: Really?

Daughter: She used to be an operator, too.

Pepe: Oh, yeah?

Daughter: Yeah. Uh-huh.

00:11:28

Pepe: I never want - I don't know what - I used to sew a lot of things but I never thought - but my friends encouraged me. The people around the neighborhood. Says, "Oh, come on. We have a good time. We have lunch together." We used to bring our lunch. We used to walk and laugh. Coming in, oh, we had such a good time.

That was a terrible thing. And when we got down, we saw the three flights burning. I said, what good - were we up there? We couldn't imagine we - the three flights were - the wind was blowing all up and everything was caught.

David: Umm.

Pepe: From one - one, two, three - the three flights, the office and everything were burning. Three flights all burning.

Daughter: Eight, nine, and ten it must have been.

Pepe: Oh, and . . .

Q: Right, right.

Daughter: Yes, it was eight, nine, and ten.

David: Yeah, that's right.

00:12:09

Daughter: Cause it started on the eighth.

Pepe: Yeah. They - he - they had a big office upstairs and that's where they had all the . . .

Q: What was it like out on the street? What - when the firemen let you go out from the building.

Pepe: Oh, my God, we never thought we were up there. We were all very nervous and crying. My God. I was cold. I had no coat or nothing. Some man was very nice; he took us in the car. He asked where we were going.

Q: So you didn't stay there? You went straight home? So they did let you . . .

Pepe: Oh, straight home. We were - they were glad to take us home. The firemen. Sure.

Daughter: What was - what was going on downstairs when you came down? What did you see when you came down from . . . ?

Pepe: The people. There all - all bodies - oh, oh, oh, it was terrible. We got sick. We had - we had to - the man took us away right away. You know, they - some of them went down with those who - you know those little glasses?

00:12:59

David: Yeah. The [inaudible] lights.

Pepe: They went right through that. Can you imagine?

Q: And you saw that? You saw, like, the broken glass.

Pepe: The people - oh, when I think of all those girls getting engaged to be married, oh, I felt terrible. [Slightly tearful.] That was a sight to see.

David: Because you know, a lot of laws were passed after the Triangle fire . . .

Pepe: Oh, yeah, I know it. You know why? There was no . . .

David: . . . that could improve conditions.

Pepe: . . . no balconies.

David: Fire escapes.

00:13:25

Pepe: If there were balconies, that wouldn't have happened.

David: Right.

Pepe: We would go by there and wonder how those girls did it. I don't know how they had the courage to throw themselves down. I couldn't do it.

Q: Did you - did you see, like, the newspapers afterwards and all the reports that came out?

Pepe: No. I couldn't - I was - we went away right away. A couple of days after, they took us on a vacation.

Q: They took you away. Because David's right, that there were a lot of laws passed to make buildings safer and to enforce their special fire codes.

Pepe: You know, the people opposite in the hotel, they all came on the balconies. "Don't fall, don't fall. Stay there!" They wouldn't - they were trying to keep the people in. There was a young girl, not an old - it was not an elderly woman, but they wouldn't do that. They all came in the front. They didn't know where to go. They got excited; they didn't know.

Q: So . . .

00:14:14

Pepe: But I went straight ahead. I knew the door was there. We all went there. The younger people knew but the old people didn't know. A lot of people died. Terrible, yeah.

Well, that was the cutters' fault, let me tell you.

Daughter: Threw the cigarettes.

Pepe: That's the only thing could have happened. Because . . .

Daughter: Sure. How else? There was no electrical fire.

Pepe: They - they - as soon as they'd get through, they lit a cigarette. I said someday there's going to be a fire. And sure did.

Q: Did you see them doing that a lot, that they - they would smoke in the room -

Pepe: That's what they'd do. They must have thrown a match or something. That's where it started.

Daughter: When they left.

00:14:45

Pepe: That lingerie was so - so - why it went in a blaze in a minute.

Q: Yes, it must have been floating all around the room.

Pepe: Oh, and then the windows got caught. The shades. Everything. Oh, my God. When we went down, I never thought the three flights were burning.

Q: Yes.

Daughter: They didn't realize it was as severe as it was.

Pepe: I said we were in that?

The man says, "No, come on. Don't look at it anymore. You'll come with me. We'll take you home." He took us home. He was a very nice man.

Q: I guess the sky must have been black and - and that there were . . .

Pepe: Oh, the smoke - oh, it was terrible. I'll never forget that time. Never. Never forget it. I never wanted to go to work anymore.

00:15:24

[Laughter in surround group.]

Pepe: My mother didn't want me to . . .

Daughter: Ma, there's another lady, in California . . .

Pepe: Yeah?

Daughter: . . . that is also a survivor.

Pepe: Oh, she must have been a young girl.

Daughter: She was - she's the same age as you.

Pepe: Oh, sure, who . . .

Daughter: Her name was Bessie . . .

David: Grabilowitz [ph].

00:15:38

Daughter: Grabilowitz. Bessie Grabilowitz.

Pepe: Well, there were so many . . .

David: She worked on the ninth floor.

Daughter: She worked on the ninth floor.

Pepe: Oh, well, I don't know her. She worked in the office, I think.

Daughter: In the office.

Pepe: That's the office upstairs.

David: No, the office was on the tenth floor. She was a - a - she was sewing machine operator.

Pepe: Well, they had nerve enough to come - they had a lot of time to come down. They took the elevator down.

David: The tenth floor, yeah.

00:16:00

Pepe: Oh, sure. They must have known right away there was a fire.

David: She was on the ninth floor.

Daughter: She was on the ninth floor.

Pepe: Oh.

Daughter: She's a survivor, too. She's in California.

Pepe: Well, she should be a survivor. She wasn't - she didn't see the fire. She came right down before the fire started up there.

David: No, she was in the - a lot of people died on the ninth floor, too.

Daughter: On the ninth floor, too.

Pepe: But they [inaudible]. I guess they must have thrown themselves. So, yes.

David: A lot of people did. One of the doors was locked on the ninth floor, also.

00:16:26

Pepe: But they were all locked.

Daughter: They locked them all.

Pepe: What did they lock it for? I don't understand.

David: It was terrible.

Q: Did anyone ever - ever question that? Did they ever say why do you lock these doors?

Pepe: Oh, we never - we never thought of it. We never thought of it. We thought maybe, you know, it's near - and I don't know.

Daughter: They were very naive. Not like today.

And that - and that stairwell wasn't so good there. That was the back entrance; it was terrible. Ooh, it was awful.

Q: Was it very narrow?

00:16:48

Pepe: Yeah, it was very narrow. Let me tell you. Not like the entrance. Oh, the entrance was brick - marble floors. It was beautiful. They wouldn't let us go through there. I don't know why. Nobody'd take anything. There - there's one - one or two that had their waists made. They all do different parts. They don't make - they don't sew a whole shirtwaist. Everybody makes sleeves, one makes that. They don't do the whole blouse or anything. How did they - why did they keep that door shut, I can't understand. I don't know.

David: We would like to give you this book on the Triangle fire.

Pepe: Oh, thank you.

David: And the author signed it for you.

Daughter: Oh, Mama, Mr. Stein. Leon Stein. Can you read it?

Pepe: Sure.

Daughter: What does it say?

Pepe: For Pauline Pepe.

Daughter: Treasured . . .

Pepe: . . . is a [inaudible] survivor of it - what's this? I can't see this . . .

00:17:42

Daughter: . . . treasured survivor who lived this book.

Pepe: Oh. This is . . .

Daughter: Leon Stein. This is the man who wrote the book.

Pepe: Oh. Isn't that lovely.

Daughter: Now, I was telling the man on - that's the book about the fire. Do you remember - listen to me - do you remember when Aunt Louise was driving on the Southern - the Belt Parkway and she heard a radio broadcast . . .

Pepe: Yeah.

Daughter: . . . about any survivors. A man wanted to write a book. That's the man.

Pepe: Oh, isn't that lovely?

Daughter: My aunt came - she was on the Belt Parkway. I don't know what year. Whenever this was done.

00:18:15

Pepe: Now isn't this . . . ? Oh, I love this. Oh, am I going to read this.

Daughter: And they said if there are any survivors that [inaudible] eleven o'clock and she called my mother.

Pepe: Oh, here's the bosses.

David: Yeah.

Pepe: Here's one of them. This fat - I remember him so well. Here he is. He's the one that used to come around. Big - like . . .

Q: What was he like? What was the boss like? What was he like?

Pepe: He was very - he was a very big man. Very stout and tall. Was a very big man. I remember him so well, he used to come around all the time. I thought I - we should have told him, "Why do you - why do you keep the door shut for!" [Slightly laughing.]

[Laugher in surrounding group.]

00:18:49

We didn't know it was shut. We would have told him. And we had to go through the back way. That was a terrible step there. It was awful.

Daughter: Hey, Mama, this is what you did. This is what you did.

Pepe: Yes. Tucking.

Daughter: And this is the man that sent it, that - that gave you - that - that wrote this book.

Pepe: Isn't that wonderful.

Daughter: I spoke to him on the telephone. He couldn't make it today. But this is . . . .

Pepe: I wonder if he's the - the superintendent of our . . .?

David: No, he was the writer.

Daughter: He's only a writer.

David: He wasn't alive then.

00:19:21

Daughter: He wasn't alive then.

Pepe: Oh.

David: He's a very young - born in the '70s.

Daughter: And he's a young man. But he wrote the book about it.

Pepe: How did he know all that?

David: He did research.

Daughter: Research. That's why . . .

David: He talked to people like you.

Pepe: Oh.

Daughter: That's why he wanted the information from people on the radio. That's when Aunt Louise heard it on the radio.

Pepe: Well look at the people that interviewed me. There was a young man that interviewed me.

Daughter: Well, that's only two years ago.

Pepe: Yeah, two or three years ago.

David: Next time give her the book.

End.

Sweatshop conditions in the early 1900's

LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEWS