Tag Archives: Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire, March 25, 1911

In commemoration of the fire that took the lives of 146 workers, nearly all young women and girls, on this day in 1911 in New York City, an excerpt from a work of fiction.


 Friday, March 17, 1911 


The sky lightened in broken bands of red.  The Asch building, the building where she worked on the ninth floor, took shape in her window like something huge and black and winged that meant to break through the glass and pin her to the bed. 

She opened her eyes.  It was still dark but she knew her blue and white striped curtains were closed, she closed them every night when she came in from work, one of the few habits of her life alone in the room.  Even if the curtains had been parted, the Asch building couldn’t be seen from her window.  It was blocks and blocks away.  

The shop had begun to follow her home.

Sometimes when she was trying to fall asleep at night she forgot where she was and thought that she was still at her machine, still working.  She tried to work, but she couldn’t see what she was doing well enough to make the work come out right, the thread snapped, the stitches veered off the edge of the piece of sewing under her hand and all the time the overseer’s wheeze grew louder as he made his rounds up and down the rows.  There were nights when she woke herself again and again from this dream, turned her head on the pillow that smelled of Paul Stein’s tobacco.  Thought, “No, I can’t work now.  I’m so tired.  I have to sleep.” 

What worried her was when this happened in reverse.  When she was in the shop, working at her machine and started to dream as if she was asleep in her bed. 

This didn’t happen at first, when she had to show that she could do the work.  After two weeks she was an expert, Sophie told her most girls were experts after one, even though they were paid beginners’ wages for a long time after.  Now she knew the work and it was always the same, seam after seam and hour after hour working her machine with her hands and her foot.  One foot worked the pedal and the other foot, the left, did nothing.  After a while she couldn’t feel the foot that wasn’t working.   

The other day she dreamed that her left foot was gone.  She was working, awake, and at the same time she was dreaming that this had happened to all of them on the ninth floor:  at the end of the day the girls stood up from their machines and found nothing at all at the ends of their left ankles.  Bite off your evil the way an animal bites away a leg caught in a trap – that’s what they said in the convent.  In her dream, it was feet breaking free from girls and running for their lives.  Two hundred and forty left feet on the streets of New York.   

She jumped when the guard rang the bell.  As if she really had been sleeping.  The back of her neck was stiff and she felt as if someone was pressing a finger against the space between her eyes. 

She was slow getting up from her machine.  When she got to the cloak room, most of the girls were gone.  Only a few coats were still hanging from the rack.  Two pale, slender girls were pinning up their braids and laughing at each other in Yiddish.  She had seen these girls in the cloak room before when she left late.  They both wore their long hair wrapped around their heads, and either they spent a long time twisting their braids after work, or one of them did and the other always waited – anyone could see that they were sisters. 

The girls didn’t notice her.  She felt as if she was still dreaming, watching them side by side so alike in the mirror.  It was so cold their breath whitened the glass.  She hadn’t felt the cold when she was working, but she could feel it now, creeping up her legs through the soles of her shoes.  One of the girls rubbed away the cloud that covered their reflection and said something that made her sister smile and blush.  Even though Virginia couldn’t understand what they were saying, she was sure the girl who blushed was being teased about a man.  She tried to imagine someone teasing her about Paul Stein.  She reached for her coat. 

The door swung open and an older woman she’d never seen before came in with a rasping sound of coarse stockings rubbed together.  The woman was dressed all in black, with her dark hair pulled back so that her ears showed.  She looked at the coat rack and then at Virginia.  Her eyes narrowed and she said something in Italian. 

“I’m sorry,” Virginia said crisply.  “I don’t understand you.”  She turned away toward the mirror.  The woman spoke again and this time her voice was loud and sharp.  The skin on the backs of Virginia’s hands prickled.  The two girls at the mirror went quiet.  The woman repeated what she’d said and pointed at Virginia’s coat. 

“I really don’t know what you’re saying.”  Her voice had gone loud, the way the nuns would shout when someone who didn’t speak English came to the convent looking for help.  She looked into the mirror.  The two girls had stopped combing their hair.  They lowered their eyes.  She put her coat over her arm and started to walk past the woman.  The woman grabbed her arm. 

“Please stop!”  Virginia pulled herself free.  “I really don’t know what she wants,” she told the two sisters.  The girls exchanged glances in the mirror.  Without saying a word they gathered up their things and scurried out of the room. 

She was alone with the woman.  The woman approached her again, this time plucking at the coat over Virginia’s arm as if she wanted to take it from her without harming it.  Virginia stared at her in amazement.  “This is my coat!”  

The woman started to yell in Italian.  Splotches of red appeared high on her cheeks and the veins throbbed in her bare temples.  Her eyes bulged.  “This is a madwoman,” Virginia whispered.  “This is a madwoman who is going to kill me.”  The woman was three or four inches shorter than Virginia, but her thick arms strained against the tight sleeves of her dress as if trying to burst free.  Hugging her purse and the coat to her chest, Virginia tried to run past her to the door.  The woman knocked her backward into the coat rack.  Virginia opened her mouth to scream but then she imagined all the people left in the shop running in to see her humiliated by the Italian woman, and closed it again.  It didn’t matter, because the woman screamed, a long, wild sound like a war cry.  

  “What’s wrong there?” a man’s voice called from the other side of the door.  Then the same voice called again, maybe asking the same question, this time in Italian.  The woman answered him and for a minute they shouted back and forth to each other.  Men were never supposed to come into the cloak room, but what if this one did?  Italians carried knives, the nuns always said, they would cut a person’s throat as easily as the string around a package. 

“This is a nightmare,” she said aloud. 

The woman broke off what she was saying and spun around toward her.  From the look on her face it seemed as if she didn’t care any more about sparing the coat.  Virginia backed against the mirror.  The woman lowered her head like a black bull about to gore, but before she could move the door opened and a pair of hands gripped her shoulders.  Another voice began shouting behind her in Italian.  Sophie. Sophie, who sat at the machine next to hers.

The woman yelled and pointed with her whole hand at Virginia.  Sophie yelled back, then she looked at the coat in Virginia’s arms and frowned. 

“Sophie, she wants my coat!  Will you please tell her – “ 

“Virginia.”  Sophie took a step toward her, then changed her mind and went to the rack instead.  She walked its whole length to the far end of the room and took down another coat, cheap black wool like the one in Virginia’s hands, but not like it, old and worn.  Hers, of course. 

When the woman reached out again Virginia let her take the coat she was holding.  The woman shook it in her face and Sophie had to step between them and yell at her some more.  The woman didn’t believe a mistake had been made, which was funny because the coat, as Virginia could see when the woman finally put it on, would have been much too small for her. 

When the woman was gone, Virginia sank into the only chair in the cloak room.  Her legs and hands were shaking.  “If it was hers, why didn’t she just say so?”  She gave a weak laugh.  “Sophie, you saved my life.  She would have torn my arms off in another minute.”   

Sophie leaned against the wall, the brown coat that used to belong to her married sister buttoned up to her chin against the cold.  She panted gently, as if she had been running.  It occurred to Virginia that maybe she had been running. 

“But why did you come back?” Virginia asked her.  “You went home when the bell rang.” 

“I was talking downstairs.  They told me to come.” 

“Who told you?” 

Sophie named two girls Virginia didn’t know. 

“The Yiddish sisters?”  Yiddish was the word Virginia used for the girls in the shop.  Ever since Sophie had told her that Paul Stein was Jewish, she’d decided that Yiddish and Jewish must refer to two separate kinds of people. 

Sophie ignored the question.  “They saw me outside.  They said, ‘Go upstairs quick.  Your friend’s in trouble.'”   

That was funny, that girls she didn’t even know thought that Sophie was her friend. 

Sophie watched her with a broody look, the same broody look she had whenever Virginia mentioned Paul Stein.  “You don’t look right,” she said.  “You’re sick.”  

“I feel fine.”  Virginia tried to smile.  “I’m just tired.” 

And much worse than tired, she added silently, to be so stupid.  To risk my neck for a cheap coat that wasn’t even my size. 


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Women on Fire

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.




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