We are approaching the one year anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh. The building housed several garment factories owned by European and American apparel companies. While the news of this horrible incident unfolded and the dust clouds cleared from the rubble, approximately 2,515 garment workers were injured and 1,130 perished.
When the somber news about the building collapse reached New York City last year, many once again drew parallels with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that occurred on March 25th, 1911. That dreadful event in American history became a catalyst to reform the working conditions in factories during the early twentieth century in the United States.
The reforms that stemmed from the Triangle Shirtwaist fire did make working conditions safer and led to stronger labor laws in America but this is only part of the story. In fact the lesson learned from the Triangle Shirtwaist fire continues to be retold as many companies and governments loosely enforce legislation regarding safety and labor regulations. Sadly, if we do not continue to retell the Triangle Factory Fire disaster, it is only a matter of time before another Rana Plaza or Triangle tragedy occurs again somewhere in the world.
The only way to learn from this truly is remembering not just the impact that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire had throughout the United States but more importantly, never to forget the stories behind the individuals who lost their lives. The gruesome descriptions that transpired on March 25th, 1911 (as in Bangladesh) are stories of women and young girls leaping to their deaths or relatives forced to identify the charred remains of their loved ones. It is through these narratives, that the tragedy has a face and allows us to tell his/her story and realize that we must prevent another disaster from happening again.
Many of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire were Jewish and Italian immigrants whose families arrived in America to escape the hardships of their homeland but fell victim to the avarice and negligent culture of factory owners. The company hired approximately 500 employees, most of the lost lives were young girls and women (and some men) between 13 to 23 years old.
One of the immigrant teens whose story we can learn from is Rosino Cirrito from the municipality of Cerda, Sicily. She was 18 years old, one of the 146 fatalities on that gloomy day as well as scores of others who were injured. Rosino had arrived at New York City’s Ellis Island in 1905, with her parents and five siblings.
Since her dad worked on and off and her siblings did not have steady work either, Rosino or Rose as she was later called had to also contribute to the family household; and found a job with a company that made shirtwaist or blouses for women.
She earned $15.00 a week as a forelady working fourteen-hour days until a fire started (some claim from a lit cigarette butt thrown in a garbage pail by accident) around 4:30pm on the 8th floor in the Asch building, located near Washington Square Park. The Triangle Company also occupied the ninth and tenth floors.
Another employee of the Shirtwaist factory born in Cerda was Giuseppina Josie Delcastillo (spelled Delcastello on her death certificate), also from Italy and was processed through Ellis Island with her mother and siblings to start a new life. Eventually she met up with her father who had already arrived in America a few years before.
Josie worked on the ninth floor, and as the flames and smoke engulfed most of the eighth floor and traveled rapidly to the ninth floor spreading quickly through wooden tables, clothing material and discarded paper, many panicked and were doomed. They raced to a fire escape but it collapsed from the extreme weight of the workers, leaving others behind on the floors to decide on another escape path.
Unbeknownst to the workers, owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, had decided weeks before that in order to maximize the workers’ productivity and to prevent stealing and cigarette breaks (although men could take breaks) the doors were locked and those that were not locked opened only inward. In addition, as elevator operators raced to the floors in question to quickly gather as many workers in an elevator and bring them down to safety, the fire and smoke continued to spread through the shafts, leaving many more behind.
The workers were trapped and many made one last ditch to go outside the ledges and hope the firemen would arrive to bring them down. Much to their dismay the fire ladders only reached between the sixth and seventh floors of buildings, leaving many of the young girls and women out of options. Leon Stein, author of The Triangle Fire as well as other newspaper articles claimed that Josie Del Castillo and another immigrant girl from Cerda who was the cousin of Rosino Cirrito, 24 year old Santina Sophie Salemi, leapt to their death with their arms wrapped around each other.
The ominous scenes that played out on that dark and dreary day left a tremendous impact on society. Most of the injured or dead resided on the Lower East Side. The area was a bastion for Italian and Jewish immigrants up until the 1960s. Rose, Josie and Sophie all lived in tenement apartments on Cherry Street in the Lower East Side between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Once the bodies of their loved ones were confirmed the families of Rose, Josie and Sophie agreed to engrave their names on one tombstone so they could be buried and remembered for eternity.
To commemorate their lives and for the past decade, Street Pictures, an organization founded and created by Ruth Sergel, pays homage to all the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire through a program called CHALK. Every March 25th volunteers go to the site where the victims formerly lived and write in chalk their name, age, place of residence and their place of employment and later meet by the Asch building to honor the memories of the victims.
Ms. Sergel explains: “The chalk will wash away but the following year we return, insisting on the memory of these lost young workers.” Ironically, almost a month before the Rana Plaza building collapse on April 24th 2013, volunteers and labor activists gathered outside the Asch building (now occupied by New York University) to remind us of the victims and to pursue justice for all working people so that Rose, Josie, Sophie and the other 143 individuals whose lives were lost will not be in vain.
Alfonso Guerriero Jr. was born and raised in New York City and is an adjunct lecturer at Baruch College (CUNY). At Baruch he teaches a course called Literature in Translation from the 17th to 20th Century and he has taught there for the past eight years. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org