A deadly Manhattan fire ignited America’s labor-rights movement in 1911. Now, 95 years later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blaze still inspires efforts to keep workers safe.
On Friday, hundreds of people showed up in Greenwich Village to mark the anniversary of the fire, which claimed the lives of 146 sweatshop workers, mostly young immigrant women.
“We need to make sure these women did not die in vain,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said of the sweatshop workers who jumped to their deaths from the burning building, which now houses New York University science labs.
On March 25, 1911, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told those gathered, the factory’s top floors were the site of “one of the most horrific tragedies in American history.”
He said some people take for granted the “strong benefits and safe working conditions” won by generations who fought for those rights “in the name of all those who suffered and died without them.”
Bloomberg described working conditions in the factory: “The hours were brutally long. The pay was obscenely low. The conditions were unsafe. When the fire erupted, the treacherous environment — including locked doors and broken fire escapes — turned the factory into a death trap.”
On Friday, public schoolchildren and union members helped lay white carnations on the sidewalk in front of the building on Greene Street. A bell tolled as the names of the dead women were read.
Officials at the ceremony included transit workers union President Roger Toussaint, teachers union President Randi Weingarten, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Democratic state Sen. Thomas Duane and Republican state Sen. Serphin Maltese.
One speaker, a 27-year-old hotel employee, said safety measures in today’s buildings are a result of what happened at the Triangle factory. But Marcus Sansaricq, who works in the laundry room of the Millenium Hilton in lower Manhattan, said many corporations also “disregard these laws and put the lives of their workers and the public in danger.”
Earlier this month, he said, he and a co-worker extinguished a fire at the hotel caused by “careless contractors who were doing spot welding without regard to safety laws,” setting clothes on fire.
The flames spread, igniting the contractor’s sleeve and producing heavy smoke. “The alarm system didn’t go off right away, the sprinkler system never worked. And fire extinguishers were blocked by laundry bins that also blocked exits,” Sansaricq told the audience.
And last December, 122 health and safety violations were found at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel, also owned by the Hilton Corp. — including blocked fire extinguishers and exits, Sansaricq said.
Hilton spokesman Michael McKeon said the hotel chain’s “first priority” is the safety of both its employees and guests.
“Any suggestion to the contrary … is outrageous and wrong,” McKeon said, adding that the Hilton is reviewing any safety issues.
Sansaricq said that in revealing the incident, he hoped “it’ll mean that the victims of that unspeakably tragic fire of 95 years ago did not die in vain.”
As a result of the Triangle fire, the New York state legislature passed the first significant worker protection laws in the nation.
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