The Great Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Anniversary Brings Memories of Grandma

30 Mar

March 25, 1911. A horrible fire breaks out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  The exit doors are chained shut.  There is no escape.  Young Jewish and Italian girls jump from the windows: many to their death. But jumping is much better than burning to death in the inferno inside the building. In the end 146 young women and men died.

Across the street a 13 year-old-girl is watching.    She knew many of the young women who worked at the factory.  She knew many who died.  She knew many who jumped.  She never, ever forgot.

I would call it a defining moment in her life. I say this because throughout my life, she always talked about it to my sister and me.  I became obsessed with this fire. I have purchased books about it, watched documentaries, and tried to understand what happened that day.

When my daughter was 13, 88 years later, she had a school history project where she had to interview a family member.  She interviewed my Dad.  And this is one of the stories he told her.

His words, my daughter’s writing:

“A story my mother told that took place in New York City. It is called the Triangle Fire. I will also remember this story to my grave.

There was a blouse factory that burned to the ground. It caused many young Jewish and Italian women who worked there to die.  The reason is, all the doors were nailed shut. The only escape was to jump out the windows, most of the women who tried, died.  Just a handful survived. The incident caused America to change their labor laws. The thing is, my mother lived opposite this building.  She watched the whole scene from her window.”

Two 13 year-old girls, decades apart, great grandmother and great granddaughter, now united with a story, remembering a horrible fire.  My grandmother never mentioned this fire to my daughter.  She was only 6 ½ when my grandmother died.  But to my sister and I, it was a common memory. We often listened to my grandmother relive this day.

It was the heat of the fire; the smell of the fire; the screams of the girls and the people in the street.   They were on the eighth floor.  The ladders did not reach them.  They jumped. They fell.  They died.   (90 years later I thought of this fire as others perished as they jumped from towers to avoid a deadly inferno…choosing to fly into the sky then burn to death.)

It was because of this fire that the women of New York City, and The International Ladies Garment Workers Union became a powerful force in the United States labor scene. The fire and its deadly toll helped this Union, formed years before, into the forefront.

As my sister said, I wish we could talk about my grandmother’s story in the past, because incidents like this fire no longer happen.  But when we hear about incidents in third world countries, like Bangladesh, where women and children perish in factories making the clothing that is imported to the United States, I know we have to continue to remember and to speak out.

I hope that these young women’s lives are never forgotten. It is because of this event, I think I have always volunteered to help women and children throughout the world and  am so active in National Council of Jewish Women.   And I carry my grandmother’s story in my heart and as a strident memory in my soul.



(There were not a residential area across the street.  So we think my grandmother watched from the across the street, not in her apartment as my Dad states.  No matter, it was still an important moment in her life. )

For those who want more information:  The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911: List of Victims


2 Responses to “The Great Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Anniversary Brings Memories of Grandma”

  1. donna March 30, 2014 at 6:23 pm #

    wow….my daughter was just telling me about this tonite….she learned about it in school….so sad

    • zicharon March 30, 2014 at 6:29 pm #

      It was the great tragedy of the time. Many families lost a daughter and some a son. Other families lost more than one child. But it did cause the change in labor laws in the United States. So something good came out of it.

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