One hundred years ago this week, 146 people were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a tragedy compounded because it was the result of preventable neglect and safety violations. An excellent new documentary, Triangle: Remembering the Fire, is showing this month on HBO. The film includes interviews with family members of those who were injured or killed in what was the deadliest industrial tragedy in New York history as well as the descendants of the factory owners, who were there with their children the day of the fire but were able to escape. Some members of their extended family were also working there and were killed. Most of the people who died were immigrant women who were trapped when the fire started, in some cases because the doors were locked to keep them inside. Many were killed not by the fire but by leaping out of the windows in a desperate attempt to escape after the flimsy fire escape collapsed. Six of the victims were not identified until February of this year, 100 years later.
The film documents not just the terrible events of March 25, 1911 but also the reform efforts they inspired. The company’s managers failed to make even the most rudimentary efforts at safety for the workers. While those injured and the families of those killed were not entitled to any benefits, the managers were reimbursed by insurance and were not responsible for any fines or compensation for the losses. This led to the first recognition that the industrial era required the involvement of organized labor and government to ensure that basic protections were in place, a crucial turning point in the history of public policy and politics. The film was inspired when a previous film from the same producers about the garment industry began with a short mention of the Triangle factory fire and ended with a similar recent story about a fire at a factory in Bangladesh. Its lessons are as important today as they were a century ago.
For more information, see: The lesson guide for teachers and students on the HBO website, American Experience: Triangle Fire, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, and The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents