Triangle Factory Fire

Lauren Caldwell, Guest Writer

“Fire! Fire!” Screamed a coworker across the room. I frantically looked around and my eyes landed on smoke creeping through the crevice under the door. As the whole room broke into a frenzy, my instincts moved my hand to grasp my best friend, Rose Freedman’s, arm. My mind began to race, thinking about my family back home and the million dollar question of how to escape. We opened the only door unlocked only to find the staircase already enveloped in flames. I cannot die. My mother and brother can not bear losing anyone else.
* * *
A few years prior, my family had just immigrated from Romania to the United States. By the third month in Manhattan, my father’s doctor diagnosed him with pneumonia. A vaccine had not been created for his particular illness and within a matter of weeks, he had taken his last breath. We were quite close, my father and I. Actually, my entire family has always had an impeccable bond. However, when we lost my father, it felt as if we had lost the support and the backbone of our family, and the rest of us seemed to sink into depression. My self confidence plummeted, and my nagging self-doubt felt like a weight chained to my ankles.  

Before my father’s passing, he always encouraged me to chase after my dreams. I can even distinctly remember him saying to me, “Elena, I can’t imagine a person becoming a success who doesn’t give this game of life everything he’s got.” My father helped me realize my biggest aspiration to become a seamstress and help support my family. He always encouraged me to keep going and get back on my feet if I failed. How can I go on without him?
* * *
March 25, 1911 seemed like an ordinary day. “Goodbye!” I yelled to my brother.

“Elena, could you help me find my newsboy hat? I need to head off to work!”

“I don’t have time, I need to leave myself!”

“Wait! Elena, your lunch!” My mother exclaimed as she came toward me, then handed me the brown sack. “Have a good day at the factory, I love you.”

“I will, I love you too.” I stated before I kissed my mother’s cheek then stepped outside into the busy streets of a beautiful, spring day in Manhattan.

Once I arrived at the factory, routine set in. About one hundred and fifty of us slowly shuffled into the elevator shaft to the 9th floor. Once we reached the ninth floor, we clocked in before entering the room filled with seemingly endless rows of long tables, chairs, cloth, and of course, sewing machines. We had just recently been given new, faster machines and were expected to complete three hundred stitches a minute instead of, the previous, thirty. If we did not complete everything or even slightly messed up, we were always blamed and often docked pay.
The owners of the factory, Max Blanck and Issac Harris, were so paranoid that we would steal shirtwaists that they locked the entrance and exit door and would have a diurnal bag check before any of us left the building.

As the hours of the morning dragged on, my hands began to grow weary, but I heard a faint clicking sound behind me. I knew that sound all too well, the sound of Issac Harris’s Oxford shoe heels hitting the ground. Periodically throughout the work day, one of the owners would come to check on our progress. My heart skipped a beat when I heard him approaching, and despite my weariness, my hands began to move at a rapid rate. He seemed to pay no attention to me and kept on walking. I heard the key which locked the stairwell door to the upstairs turning before the constant humming of sewing machines took over the rooms’ ambiance.

* * *

In the work room, we had no clock, but the way the shadows danced on our tables told me the afternoon had just arrived. I had become so engulfed in the routine of sewing that it became practically second nature to me, and I began to daydream. I’m meeting up with some friends tonight, maybe I’ll meet a guy. Maybe I’ll even meet the one. I want someone that embodies a spirit like my father. I definitely want him to be— my thoughts were suddenly broken by the faint smell of something burning. I thought perhaps a machine may have gotten too hot, but then I heard the piercing scream, “Fire! Fire!”

I immediately looked for the exits; there were two stairwells and an elevator, but one stairwell almost always remained locked because it led upstairs. I immediately grabbed Rose’s arm and dragged her toward the stairwell that led downstairs. However, I had seen smoke creeping out from under the door. I hope we can escape this way. Sure enough, when I swung the door open, I was met with a wave of heat and bright light. The stairwell had already erupted into flames.

The elevator! I kept my hold on Rose as we reached the elevator, but it seemed too many people had the same idea. People began cramming into the elevator, and I was sure it would snap. The women around me were screaming about their families and pushing others into the elevator. I even saw a girl fall down the shaft.

The flames were rising and the room temperature drastically rose in a matter of minutes. “We must find another way out! This many people cannot go down the elevator in time!” exclaimed Rose. I spun on my heels, but was greeted by the sight of girls, in groups of two’s or three’s, jumping from the windows with their hair or clothing already on fire.

“The other staircase!” I shouted.

“But Elena, it’s locked,” Rose argued.

Our time and options had begun to diminish. The sewing needles! Maybe I could pick the lock. Nearly half the room was already in flames as I sprinted towards the closest machines. Rose jiggled the handle as I frantically tried to open the door with the needles. BANG! With a loud noise and my head spinning from the newly opened door, Rose and I raced up two flights of stairs toward the roof. I swung open the last door and greedily drew in a fresh breath of air. After a pause of relief, I exclaimed, “Rose! We must get off this roof! We have to go home to our families!” Mine sure cannot bear to lose me.

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Triangle Fire. Directed and produced my Jamila Wignot, written by Mark Zwonitzer, United States PBS, 2011.

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