As the film makes clear, the story of the Triangle Fire is actually many stories, fragmented, frightening, and heroic.
Katharine Weber's grandmother worked at the Triangle Factory. Like other employees, Weber says, Pauline Gottesfeld was assigned a specific, repetitive task, finishing buttonholes. And she had "very few rights and very few options. They worked seven days a week and extremely long hours, for no pay. There was the expectation of being a cog in the machine."
Pauline left that job for another, in a Brooklyn grocery store. And so she wasn’t inside the Triangle Factory when it caught fire on 25 March 1911. Still, the catastrophe haunted her, and her granddaughter. "Throughout my childhood my father told me the story of the Triangle fire," recalls Weber, who went on to write a novel about the fire. And the story of the fire is recounted once again in Triangle: Remembering the Fire, premiering on HBO 21 March.
As the film makes clear, the story of the fire is actually many stories, fragmented, frightening, and heroic. The fire started on the eighth floor and soon consumed the ninth, where sewing machines were fitted so closely together that operators -- mostly young immigrant women -- had little room to maneuver (owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris and their staff were located on the 10th floor, from which they escaped to the roof and then, by ladders, to the nearby New York University Law School). Erica Lansner's great aunt Fannie, a floor supervisor, helped her charges to get onto the elevator in as orderly a fashion as possible. She "remained a beacon of calmness while there was so much panic going on around her." She died in the fire, when the elevator was unable to return.
Dennis Clancy's great-great-grandfather Joseph Zito ran the elevator, making repeated trips to rescue as many workers as he could, Clancy says, carrying double the numbers of passengers the car was designed to hold: when people began to leap into the elevator shaft, landing on top of the car, it was eventually so overloaded that it slipped into the basement and flames burned the cables. Zito was troubled afterward by what he saw that day: flames behind women hoping to get in to his elevator and "women on windowsills about to jump to their deaths." As Clancy puts it, he "said he would never be able to get this image out of his head."
The fire did its primary damage in less than 15 minutes, notes narrator Tovah Feldshuh, leaving 146 of 500 workers dead (145 of these on the ninth floor). Fire trucks arrived within a few minutes, but their ladders reached only to the sixth floor, leaving workers, again, "with very few options." Fire Marshall Raymond Ott describes his firefighter grandfather Andrew Ott was "one of the first responders." He saw "women jumping out of windows holding on to their pocketbooks," says Ott, "He saw people melted together." Raymond compares this to what he saw on 9/11, when he was a first responder some 90 years later: "I watched people jumping. One, two, three: people would jump out."
In describing the horrors of what he and his grandfather witnessed, Ott makes another point as well: "The bottom line is, if there's no regulations, people will cut corners and they'll take the chance." His argument is the film's as well, supported by historians Leigh Benin and Michael Hirsch. "The government just refused to get involved," says Hirsch, "To not be told how to run their business is believed by many to be a birthright in this country, and people who came to this country, they wanted in on that." Indeed, as Blanck's granddaughter Susan Harris recalls, "He had a dream to get to America to start a business." Photos show the family's relative luxury, children dressed in fine clothes, posed stiffly in a carriage. "He wanted to be successful," she says.
The route to this success -- as one of the Shirtwaist Kings -- involved saving money on production. Just a year and a half before the fire, the Triangle Factory had been the focus of a strike -- the Uprising of the 20,000, led by Clara Lemlich -- asking for improved working conditions. Also recounted in American Experience: Triangle Fire, the strike was settled in early 1910, help from the city government -- the famed Tammany Hall -- leaving the Triangle pretty much as it was. Suzanne Pred Bass, whose two great-aunts worked there, says, "They were not valued. What was valued was having lots of money, and any way you could get it was okay." Her great-aunt Rosie perished that day. Her sister Katie, says Bass, "told me she lost her in the smoke."
The story of this loss is still appalling. Like the several others detailed in Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson's film, its emotional and political facets are made clear in archival photographs and newspaper drawings: portraits of the young workers, images of the day's carnage, shots of firemen, policemen, and family members, aghast at what they saw. Triangle: Remembering the Fire reports the well-known coda that Blanck and Harris were acquitted of manslaughter charges, adding that the notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall, in particular Governor Al Smith and New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner, set in motion an "exhaustive investigation." The result was regulation of workplaces like the Triangle Factory -- laws ordaining hours, wages, and safety conditions -- and the reinvigoration of the union movement.
Benin points out the connections between the story of the Triangle Fire and current legal and political assaults on unions. "If people want to know what would deregulated industry would look like," he says, "Look at the bodies on the sidewalk outside the Triangle Building." As the film shows these bodies, it also indicates the complications of storytelling, of remembering what happened to whom, and especially, how stories are functions of perspectives. Susan Harris today stitches victims' names into pieces of shirtwaist fabric, making what she calls "prayer flags."
As these flags hang unexplained behind her during her interview, Harris expresses her own complicated, multiple perspectives: "From a personal point of view, I'm happy that my grandfather didn’t have to go to jail," she says. "Looking at it from the victims' and their families' point of view, if my daughter had died in that fire, you know, if he hadn't been my grandfather, I probably would have shot him."