More than a century ago, a fire broke out on the upper floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a garment company in Greenwich Village, killing 146 workers, many of them immigrant women. The building remained standing and only a small plaque dedicated to those who perished indicated the importance of this historic site.
But now, a powerful new memorial at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place honors the lives of those who perished there and reminds all that they did not die in vain. Instead, their deaths inspired a fight that continues today for worker rights and workplace safety.
A visually stunning memorial
Not only is the monument one of very few memorials in the United States dedicated to workers, it also stands out for its stunning design. Designers Uri Wegman and Richard Joon Yoo laser cut the victims' names into a thin sheet of metal. Then, they mounted that panel onto the building. At hip height, they also mounted a reflective black shelf, onto which the victims names are reflected.
The design inspires curious passersby to look up to find the source of the names they can see reflected. When they look up, they're looking toward the area where the fire started.
There, smashed on the sidewalk, were the beautiful faces of those who were my neighbors at the machines.
In addition to reflecting victims' names, the black shelf also bears gutting quotes from those on the scene that day. One reads, "There, smashed on the sidewalk, were the beautiful faces of those who were my neighbors at the machines," a blousemaker named Dora Appel Skalka said. The fire department's Edward Worth is quoted as saying, "I thought they would come down one at a time. They came down with arms entwined—three and even four together."
History of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
The fire broke out on March 25, 1911 on the upper floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the result of an errant cigarette butt. On the ninth floor, the doors were locked to prevent theft (and perhaps also to prevent union organizers from entering, some officials suggest). In addition to the locked doors trapping the workers, a fire escape collapsed, and fire department ladders couldn't reach the people in danger. As the fire raged around them, many of the victims jumped to their death rather than stay inside the burning building.
It became one of the worst workplace tragedies in American history. Before the factory fire, workers had been trying to unionize for protection against dangerous and abusive conditions. Their demands for increased fire safety were not met. The fire inspired even more calls for union protection, and it spurred the creation of agencies to regulate health and safety conditions in the workplace.
A year after the fire, the Fire Department of New York founded its Bureau of Fire Prevention. Every new fire fighter in the city still learns about the Triangle disaster, Ronald Kanterman, FDNY's executive chief inspector said during a dedication event for the memorial today.
'They will never be forgotten'
Hundreds attended the memorial dedication, including union representatives and family members of the victims. Some held up fabric cutouts of shirtwaist garments and black-and-white pictures from the factory. Others help up posters demanding health and safety protection for workers, including nail salon technicians.
"Together we have changed the landscape of New York City," Mary Anne Trasciatti, president of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition said to those assembled. "We have brought the names and ages of immigrant workers, most of them women, all of them robbed of a long and full life, into the light where they belong, where they will never be forgotten. By honoring the Triangle workers with this memorial, we are making a statement about the dignity and humanity of every worker past and present."
We have brought the names and ages of immigrant workers, most of them women, all of them robbed of a long and full life, into the light where they belong.
The need for safe working conditions continues, acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Julie Su said at the event. She's working on enforcement to protect workers, such as issuing heat hazard alerts, extending overtime protections and combatting child labor.
"This was such a tragedy where workers lost their lives needlessly because they were working in a factory that was unsafe and they couldn't get out of when the fire started," Su said. "The memorial is a reminder of how bad it can be when we don't protect workers' rights and we don't listen to workers who complain about working conditions. But also about what is possible. Since that time, there have been dramatic changes in workers' rights in the state of New York but also nationally. We have to do everything we can to continue to defend those rights and to expand them where appropriate."
A place for 'collective memory and collective action'
For family members of victims, the memorial offers a long-awaited moment of recognition. After the fire, the company's owners were acquitted of manslaughter charges and paid a maximum of $75 in damages to 23 of the victims' families.
Now, despite the families' heartache, they have a place to grieve together. Two of Suzanne Pred Bass's great aunts were working at Triangle on the day of the fire. One lived and one died.
"Descendants of those lost in the fire can celebrate that we now have a tangible site of collective memory and collective action," she said during the dedication event. "My great grandmother's vision of a substantial monument that would honor her daughter has finally been realized."
In addition to the monument dedicated today, a second phase of the installation will expand the steel ribbon to the ninth story of the building, recalling the signs that once hung from the building and acting as a mourning ribbon. That's expected to be installed this winter.
The memorial was made possible with a grant of $1.5 million from the State of New York and by funding from foundations, labor unions, and thousands of other supporters. New York University currently owns the building and has been a partner in the efforts to create the monument.
In addition to the monument, an installation called "Collective Ribbon" is also on view. Led by Casa Italiana at NYU, sewed together pieces of fabric related to the Triangle Fire. It's on view at 24 West 12th Street through March 29, 2024.