Play, Panel Forum at StMU Examine Legacy of Deadly 1911 NYC Workplace Fire

by Morgan Montalvo

WOAI News

St. Mary's University's Drama Department tonight begins a week-long examination of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that killed 146 people and signaled widespread workplace reforms, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

A play titled The Triangle Factory Fire Project opens this evening at 7:30 p.m. at the school's Treadway Hall,Guadalupe Chapel, and a panel discussion next Monday examines the tragedy and its aftermath, says Drama Department Chair Prof. Bernadette Hamilton-Brady.

The Mar. 25, 1911 blaze, said to have been sparked by a discarded cigarette, tore through the Triangle Waist Company's three-floor Manhattan garment sweatshop packed with textiles and machinery. Historians consider it one of America's deadliest industrial disasters. 

"It was extraordinary, because it happened so quickly. Eighteen minutes is when this fire just spread throughout the factory, and there was no time to really think," says Hamilton-Brady, "and people were just finding some way to get out.

"And of course they couldn't, because the doors were locked - and the fire was on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors," she says.

Triangle Waist Co. management kept doors locked and restricted worker movement to discourage theft and increase productivity, according to survivor statements. Employees worked nine-hour days Monday through Friday and seven hours on Saturdays without morning or afternoon breaks in an era before minimum-wage and workweek regulations.

The victims, officially tallied at 123 women and 23 men, died in the fire, from smoke inhalation, or from leaping from the upper stories to escape the flames. 

Hamilton-Brady says the Triangle Fire story plays well against today's political and social climate.

The factory's female seamstresses, she says, were mostly recent immigrants "from Italy and from Eastern Europe, primarily Jewish, and it was just heartbreaking to hear of their sense of promise, and sense of being in this new country and ready to contribute to it." 

The female victims' ages ranged from 14 to 43.

In the aftermath of the blaze, legislation mandated workplace safety codes and building construction standards - safeguards that Hamilton-Brady says are taken for granted by subsequent generations of American workers unfamiliar with Triangle Fire story. Garment worker union membership grew following the fire, and public opinion added momentum to the women's suffrage movement. 

The Mar. 4 afternoon panel discussion will feature St. Mary's faculty and staff with expertise in industrial engineering, fire safety, immigrants rights, labor law and social justice.

"A tragedy had to happen in order to correct the ills that were going on in the workplace, and that's just so unfortunate. But we can still remember these people who have lost their lives and honor them," says Hamilton-Brady of her students' and colleagues' work on The Triangle Factory Fire Project, "and hopefully, by keeping their memory alive, try to continue the work in improving social conditions, working conditions, in the American landscape."

IMAGE COURTESY: ST. MARY'S UNIVERSITY

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