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NY Remembers Worst Factory Fire in City's History - 2003-03-26

New York Tuesday granted landmark status to a building at the site of the worst factory fire in the city's history. The March 25, 1911, fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company killed 146 young immigrant women in 15 minutes, sparking the unionization of garment workers and the adoption of workplace safety laws.

To mark the lives of each of the young immigrant women who died in the 1911 sweatshop disaster 146 fire bells tolled.

The neo-Renaissance-style building in the heart of Greenwich Village is now part of New York University. But in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company which fought unionization of its workers occupied the top three of the building's 10 floors.

Five hundred mostly Jewish, Italian and Polish women, between the ages of 13 and 23, were at work at their sewing machines that day. At 4:30 in the afternoon, a fire broke out on the eighth floor cutting room and spread fast, fueled by the thousands of pounds of fabric.

Terrified workers rushed to exit doors, some of which had been locked by the factory's bosses. The rear fire escape collapsed, and many of the women, their dresses on fire, leapt from open windows to their death.

Vincent Maltese lost his grandmother and her two sisters, ages 14 and 18, in the fire. The 68-year-old retired court official says that in the months after the fire, his grandfather searched for his wife's remains and struggled to raise two sons on his own.

"My grandmother was not identified right away," he said. "She was one of the unknowns that were interred at Greenwood Cemetery. My grandfather used to go every morning before he went to work to the morgue at the pier and they had pieces of clothing, rings in shoeboxes for each person. Finally, I think it was 10 months or a year later, he found something in one of the shoeboxes. He used to go pore through these boxes every morning, and he finally said this was her."

The fire led to the enactment of more stringent workplace safety laws and bolstered efforts for garment workers to unionize.

At the dedication ceremony, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the tragedy was largely preventable. "At the start of the 20th century in the garment industry, which was the largest employer in the City of New York, there were obscenely low wages, dangerous overcrowding, brutally long hours and fire hazards," he said. "That was what everybody lived with day in and day out. Bathroom breaks were monitored and talking was forbidden. Sadly, it took the martyrdom of 146 young women for real change to begin."

Robert Tierney, head of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, says the landmark designation will keep the lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory alive for future generations.

"The events in this building mark a turning point in American labor history," he said. "The fact that Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins, who actually witnessed this fire in 1911, characterized March 25, 1911 as 'the day the New Deal began'. The designation of this site, where a local tragedy influenced a national consciousness ensures that it will continue to serve as a compelling monument to the victims of the past and to their lasting legacy of reformed labor laws, fire safety codes and building codes."

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire remains one of the most enduring symbols for the American labor movement, and a rallying point for strict enforcement of safety codes in the workplace.