Remembering New York's Deadliest Factory Fire

Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of New York City's deadliest industrial fire. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blaze left some 146 garment workers dead. Most were immigrant women. The tragedy also prompted changes in labor law and politics, which still resonate today. Guest host Jacki Lyden discusses the event with Curtis Lyons, Director of Cornell University's Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, which holds the definitive archival collection on the fire.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, the college athlete born with one leg who managed the leverage to win a national wrestling championship. We'll hear from Anthony Robles in just a few moments.

But first, an event that had a profound impact on the way we work and live today. It was 100 years ago, March 25, 1911, when a devastating fire ripped through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. In just under half an hour, 146 people would lose their lives.

At least one set of doors had been locked by factory owners, and the death toll was ultimately attributed to poor working conditions and safety measures, and a general disregard for the young immigrant girls and women who made up a majority of those who were killed in the fire.

The tragic loss of life captivated the American public, and would underline issues of labor relations, class and politics for decades. One warning. To understand the nature of this historic event, we're going to briefly hear details of the tragedy that may not be suitable for young ears.

Curtis Lyons joins me know from our New York studios. Mr. Lyons is director of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University. And the Kheel Center is home to the largest archive of information regarding the Triangle fire. Mr. Lyons, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. CURTIS LYONS (Director, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University): Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: Let me take you back to a clip that we pulled actually from the Chicago Tribune, but they had a correspondent in New York. This is looking back to the 25th of March, 1911.

(Reading) They were putting on their hats and coats at quitting time on Saturday, March the 25th, 1911, when someone noticed smoke curling from the long rag bin under the cutting tables on the eighth floor. Someone telephoned warning to the executive offices on the 10th floor, but nobody told the ninth floor. There were no sprinklers. One set of doors was locked.

The building's fire escape filled up and collapsed. It's elevators made several trips, but were finally jammed by the bodies of those who had leapt into the open elevator shaft to escape the flames. The rest of the ninth floor workers were forced to the windows. They came down like rockets. Long hair streaming with fire, dresses aflame. The final count was 146 dead.

So listening to this account, what were the means of escape? What was possible, and what was blocked?

Mr. LYONS: There were two interior staircases, one of which was passable, the other of which was commonly locked near the end of the day so that all the workers could be required to go out the one exit so their bags could be checked to make sure they weren't stealing anything.

There was also an exterior fire escape, but it was very difficult to navigate, and because of those difficulties, it ended up too crowded and collapsed with most everyone who was on it dying that way.

LYDEN: Let's listen to this clip from a woman who survived this fire, Pauline Pepe. She was interviewed in 1986, and this interview is part of your collection at the Kheel Center. And here she is describing what she saw when she got out of this building.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Ms. PAULINE PEPE (Fire Survivor): When we got down, we saw the three flights burning, and I says (unintelligible) were we up there? We couldn't imagine -everything was caught.

Unidentified Woman: What was going on downstairs when you came down?

Ms. PEPE: The people, they're all - all the bodies - oh, we got sick. The men took us over right way. When I think of all those girls engaged to be married, oh, I feel terrible. That was a sight to see.

LYDEN: You know, it's remarkable, that clip, Curtis Lyons, because you still hear in her voice how horrifying it was for her.

Mr. LYONS: Oh, yes. There's no question. It was a scarring event for everyone who attended, I believe. I mean, the policeman and the firefighters, the witnesses. There was a gentleman on the second floor who was in his office. He heard a ruckus. He went to the window just in time to see a body fall right in front of him, and then another and another.

And they found him still standing in front of that window dumbstruck an hour later, the police did, and had to just lead him out of there, because he was just in complete shock and terror.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Curtis Lyons. He's the director of the largest archive of information on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred 100 years ago today. It killed 146 people.

The fire came at a time when labor relations in the garment industry was really about to change anyway. And about 20 years later, Franklin Roosevelt's very famous labor secretary, Frances Perkins, would say that the Triangle fire was, quote, "the torch that lit up the whole industrial scene."

Now, we have a clip of tape here from the Kheel Center's archive in a much later lecture in 1964 in which Frances Perkins talks about the fire and its impact.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Ms. FRANCES PERKINS (Labor Secretary for President Franklin Roosevelt): This made a terrible impression on the people of the state of New York. I can't begin to tell you how disturbed the people were everywhere. It was as though we had all done something wrong, it shouldn't have been. We were sorry, mea culpa, mea culpa.

LYDEN: So how did labor relations organize after the fire?

Mr. LYONS: Well, there was certainly a lot more interest. The International Ladies' Garment Workers Union had formed just a few years earlier and had gained a number of members from the uprising of the 20,000 which began in 1909 and ended in 1910.

Workers of the Triangle Company had started that strike in 1909. So regular newspaper readers all knew Triangle, and they had read that these were the kinds of things that the workers wanted rectified.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LYONS: And now they could read directly, here were some of the results of them not being rectified, and part of which was, of course, not having union representation. One girl can go to an owner and say that door needs to be unlocked, and she'll be fired. If it's done with the union backing, then they're much more likely to get results.

LYDEN: Now Hilda Solis, the current secretary for Labor, is in New York today in commemoration of the fire. It's interesting that she too talks about a sweatshop from her own community in California - El Monte, California, found in 1995 to have Thai immigrants sewing brand-name clothing for next to nothing. Connections, do you think, to the Triangle fire?

Mr. LYONS: Well, there are certainly still sweatshops in America. There's no question about that, illegal sweatshops, at least we can say that. And there are still very illegal sweatshops overseas. There was a fire in Bangladesh in December, which reminded a lot of people of the Triangle fire including young immigrant women in fact from other countries other than Bangladesh who were jumping from the top floor windows in an attempt to escape the fire.

So there's no question that while the Triangle fire led to some extremely important legislation, that there are still areas where there are great dangers in the workplace.

LYDEN: As the director of the archive, is there one item or story that stands out for you?

Mr. LYONS: You know, there was one quote from a survivor. She talked about how when they immigrated they knew life would be tough. They knew it would be better than what they left behind, which in almost all cases, of course, it was. But she said that all the greenhorns, which is what they called the most recent immigrants, all the greenhorn parents told their children that in America they don't let you burn. And that always grips me very hard whenever I read that quote.

LYDEN: Curtis Lyons is director of the Kheel Center for Labor Management, Documentation and Archives at Cornell University. He joined us from our New York bureau. Mr. Lyons, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Mr. LYONS: Thank you for having me.

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