Last week in Bangladesh a building collapsed, fire ensued, and over 400 garment workers, many young women and girls, are dead.
Over a hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City, and over 400 garment workers, many young women and girls, were left dead.
How can this still be happening?
All over the world the poorest, most vulnerable, and often youngest workers spend their days sewing the clothes we all wear, under miserable and unsafe conditions. Often behind locked doors. It’s hard, repetitive work, poorly compensated – and sometimes deadly. That these are still the employment conditions of so many of the world’s women and girls is an international disgrace.
Companies linked to the Bangladesh factories include Walmart, JCPenney, Joe Fresh, Primark, and many others that are being contested. Consumers and retailers have the power to demand safe working conditions for women, by refusing to turn a blind eye to our clothing’s provenance. My shampoo bottle assures me that no animals were harmed in its making. How about a label that promises no girls died for my T shirt?
Some years ago I was awarded a grant to write a novel, about, among other things, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire. What follows is an excerpt from its pages.
The Fullness of Time: Saturday, March 25, 1911
The blonde girl who hands out the work has just gone out the window.
Some of the girls are still sitting at their machines. The forelady has handed out the pay envelopes and rung the four-thirty bell and the girls – most of the girls – have pulled their switches and scraped their chairs back from their machines, as happy as if they thought they were leaving them forever instead of only until Monday. They’ve crowded the long aisles and spilled into the dressing room singing a song that all the girls, even I, know the words to. The room has gone suddenly hotter, there’s a sound like an intake of breath and a bitter smell of burning oil spreads across the rows. Fireflies rise from the machines and spark above the tables. And the blonde girl who hands out the work has gone through the window, shattering the pane between the workshop and heaven.
But a few of the girls are still sitting at their machines. The wicker baskets at their knees, the one last piece of work they stayed to finish in their hands, the floorboards beneath their feet all catch the flames that fly from their machines. They don’t even scream.
Rosa, the dark girl who sits next to Sophie, goes out the window.
The rest of the girls scream. We’re falling over our chairs sitting back to back in pairs, blocking the aisles. Some try to reach the stairway door, and the first girls are crushed against it as more and more arrive.
“Girls, girls, girls,” the forelady cries, fighting her way to the door. The door is locked and the forelady doesn’t have the key. “The key is in the lock,” the forelady cries, but the forelady is wrong.
I run toward the others at the door, then stop and let myself be swept into a pack of girls who are running another way. I don’t know where we are running. I don’t know whether I scream or not. There is the sound of breaking glass and so many voices, one of them may be mine.
The fire travels the wire above the cutters’ tables, kindling hundreds of cheap arms and bodices as it goes.
A girl staggers toward me from one of the aisles with her long hair hanging undone over her shoulders. A strange light moves up her skirts and catches at the ends of her hair. She stops and looks down at herself and sees it too. Then she turns and runs to the windows, pulls herself onto the sill and throws herself out.
The door at the back of the shop is open. Joe, the cutter, runs through the door and one of the girls runs out after him, past the barrel of oil they keep there for the machines, and into the narrow back stairwell where only one at a time can pass. Another girl reels through the door and I’m running toward it when the barrel explodes and bursts into flame. A wind blows up the stairs. Three girls have time to stumble backward into the shop as the flames push through the open door and cover the girl in front of them.
Anya, the little girl who wears eyeglasses, goes out the window with her pay envelope clutched in her hand.
A man grabs my arm from behind and spins me around. I must be covered in black ash like some of the others I see, I could be any of the girls, and he takes my face in both his hands and searches my eyes. He won’t believe he’s never seen me before.
“I thought you were my sister,” he gasps.
Half the voices in the room are crying for sister, mother, daughter, calling out names in English, Yiddish and Italian. Mother, sister, daughter. Sophie. Sophie, jumping to her feet the instant the forelady rang the bell, with a little wink for me and a pat for Rosa’s head, dashing to the dressing room ahead of the long lines and the crowds to make it to some family celebration. Before the screams and the breaking glass. I tear myself away from the man who is looking for his sister and run.
In the dressing room, the girls are laughing. The room is filling with smoke and the girls are choking, shaking with laughter and pressing their backs against the wall to keep from doubling over. The tears stream from their eyes and one girl, not laughing, yells at them, “Don’t you understand?”
They do understand, but Sophie isn’t one of them. She isn’t in the dressing room and now I have to believe she made it out. I have to see her on the street, running home through the square once called potter’s field.
Back out into the workroom, the fire feeds, driving the girls still trapped in the aisles from one end of the shop to the other. One girl has climbed on top of the worktables, as if the fire is a flood and this is safety, skipping over the machines as the flames reach for her ankles. She reaches the end of the row of tables and is too short or too frightened to jump down. “Girls, girls, girls,” she cries. “Help me!” She pants and flaps her arms. She turns in a circle, hops and dances over the last machine until she falls off the edge of the table and is trampled by girls running from the locked door to the windows to hurl themselves out.
The little boy who oils the machines goes out the window with his clothes and hair on fire. Two sisters, holding hands, go out the window. A girl wraps her face in a bolt of cloth and runs past me into the open stairwell that is on fire. In a moment she is back again, untwisting and untwisting the burning cloth from her face as it turns to ash in her hands and she, too, goes out the window.
Girls still pound at the locked door.
Across the room, two or three girls have been clawing at the shutters over a window. Finally the shutters swing open, uncovering something I never knew was there: a fire escape. Now without moving my own feet I’m caught in the wave of girls pressing toward the fire escape, driven to the edge of the broken window. My head is thrust out into the soft blue sky of the spring afternoon that is still there, outside the shop. The girls fight each other over the sill, into the metal balcony that sags under their weight. The flames are coming through the crushed slats, the girls swing from the ladder. The balcony can’t hold. I grip the window frame to keep from being forced out. Two girls climb to the sill in front of me and throw themselves onto the heads of the others already in the balcony. The slats give way with a sound of splitting metal. The fire escape opens, spilling girls into the alley below.
I am still in the shop. The fire feeds. Half the room is fire now, the flames advance down the aisles, forcing the girls into the wall of windows on the far side of the shop from where I stand. The Italian woman whose coat I almost stole goes out the window. Maria, the girl who looks even younger than Sophie, goes out the window. And Lena, the nervous girl who sits on Sophie’s other side, goes out the window.
She doesn’t hear me. The girls haven’t given up hope for the locked stairway door, or maybe the ones who first threw themselves at it have gone out the windows and other girls have taken their place. Sophie is with them. When I reach her, she’s coughing and her hair is singed, her beautiful gray eyes are red and wild. I hold her by the shoulders and she struggles to free herself. I say her name over and over until she knows me.
She throws herself at me, sobbing something I can’t understand. I take her in my arms and for a moment breath the smell of oranges, hear her burst of laughter, watch her wring her hands and hurry toward me across my room with her funny, clumsy gait. Then I drag her past the stairway door into the mass of girls trying to move like one enormous body into the little elevator, meant to carry a dozen passengers but already holding what looks like three times as many. We’re too late. The operator closes his doors against the girls’ screams and the elevator begins to fall.
The girl whose black velvet hat I once admired goes out the window. Sophie tries to follow her and I have to fight to keep her in my arms.
I’ve always been afraid of the elevator. Sophie laughs at me, running up and down all the flights of stairs, breathless, because I don’t like to use it. “Greenhorn,” she calls me, as if I’ve never seen an elevator before. “I’m more American than you. I like modern things.”
The elevator rises slowly to the ninth floor, the doors open. The cable burns down the center of the car. The girls surge forward grabbing for each other’s necks, pulling each other by the hair to make a place for themselves inside. As if we know this will be the elevator’s last descent.
“Girls, girls, girls,” the elevator operator cries.
I hold Sophie in front of me and push. I push against the others as if they weren’t girls. As if I would take all of them back into the fire, trade all of their lives for hers. I push, but the bodies of the girls are so hard with life I can’t part them. My arms begin to soften. The elevator doors are blocked with girls. The operator can’t close the doors, so with the doors open, the elevator begins to drop. All around us girls scream. Sophie doesn’t make a sound. She is suffocating. I crouch behind her, she is so much smaller than I am, I press my whole body against her and push. A space opens between the girls. It is a very small parting and through it I push Sophie off the edge of the ninth floor into the burning elevator shaft and she falls onto the roof of the falling car.
Virginia. I hear her cry echo in the burning shaft. I can still feel her, the heat of her skin, the press of her muscles. Virginia. She doesn’t want to leave me. Girls press in front of me to jump and I’m forced back, deep into the shop, and the elevator is gone.
It’s grown very dark in the shop. Black clouds roll down the aisles. Flames come through many of the windows. Girls run blind through the smoke and the flames with their hands outstretched in front of their faces.
I stand still in the center of the room. The smoke thickens. The girls rush past. The wooden boards roll under my feet, buckle and pitch, like the floor of a ship, the ship beneath my mother’s feet on her journey to the new world with the infant coiled inside her womb.
A man has jumped up onto the sill and crouches there, a tall man with dark curly hair. He turns to face the workshop and sees me. He beckons to me with his hand. I shake my head. He beckons again and I stumble backward. Another girl runs to him. She gives him her hand, he pulls her up onto the sill and with a kiss, helps her into the air.
Behind me, the flames explode through the elevator shaft. The fire feeds. But I won’t hear the screams, the pounding feet, the breaking glass any longer. I’m listening to the other side of the window.
This used to be a potter’s field, they’d said.
They are singing for us in the square. I can hear them singing under the earth, the hung men and the yellow fever women, singing in the darkness to give us courage. Belling the earth with the breath of their dead voices.
The man on the sill beckons to me again. Every time I refuse him another girl runs to take my place. He kisses each one and hands each one out into the great city of New York. Come, he beckons. I see the girls raise their arms. I see their long black skirts open against the sky.
Something lifts inside me. I turn my back on our burning rows and walk toward him. One foot, then the next. I hold out my hand and he pulls me up onto the sill. I feel his callused fingers gripping mine. I smell the sweet sweat of his neck, taste the taste of roasted nuts on his lips.
I will not be afraid. For now I know that girls can fly.