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New Yorkers Honor 110th Anniversary of Triangle Shirtwaist Fire - Jack Stone Truitt

RENEE RODEN, HOST: 110 years ago today, 146 people, mostly young Jewish and Italian women immigrants, lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The tragedy was a turning point in the US labor movement. It prompted new regulation and spurred a growth in unions. As Jack Stone Truitt reports, its legacy remains as relevant as ever.

JACK STONE TRUITT, BYLINE: Allison Scola crouches down, bright blue chalk staining her hands as she inscribes a name onto a sidewalk in the East Village.

ALLISON SCOLA: So today I am chalking Rachel Grossman, who lived at 98 7th St. And she was 17 years old on March 25, 1911, when the triangle fire happened. (0:14)

TRUITT: Since 2004, volunteers have gone to the places where victims of the fire lived, and written their names in chalk on the sidewalk. Mostly in tenement buildings in Lower Manhattan, but also in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Scola has been doing it since 2011.

SCOLA: So here's my attempt at remembering her and what she contributed. So for our sake, so we have safe work conditions and reasonable work weeks and that sort of thing. It's all started here, really, you have to remember that. (0:15)

TRUITT: It’s become an important commemoration for descendants of the victims as well. Bill Swersey’s great-grandfather perished in the fire only 3 months after arriving in the United States.

BILL SWERSEY: There's something really poetic about this impermanent memorial, and then doing it every year.

TRUITT: Volunteers are chalking names as usual today, but the official commemoration ceremony put on by the Remember the Triangle coalition will be virtual this evening. Andi Sosin is a former educator working with the coalition. She co-authored a book called The New York Triangle Factory Fire. She says the fire alerted the public to the horrors of unregulated industry.

ANDI SOSIN: So it was a seminal event because it awoke the country to the need for regulation of capitalism. And government regulation of workers safety and other progressive legislation came after the triangle fire as a result of the outrage of the tragedy.

TRUITT: The fire was hardly the first horrific incident involving workers in the United States. But its dramatic nature, with young women jumping from windows to escape the smoking Greenwich Village factory, attracted widespread attention. Joshua Freeman is a labor historian. He says there are many low-wage workers today in the US dealing with unsafe conditions. COVID-19 has only made that situation worse.

JOSHUA FREEMAN: And many of them don't have a lot of recourse in terms of the safety conditions that they face. Certainly in the last year, we saw a tragic decimation of what we've called essential workers, who suffered. In many cases working in close quarters, this was not fire, it was disease. But you know, these problems are certainly not gone away.

TRUITT: For those organizing this year’s Triangle fire commemoration, the fight against unsafe labor conditions goes on. They say remembering the lives lost 110 years ago is more important than ever. Jack Stone Truitt, Columbia Radio News.


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