Read part one of “my great-grandmother’s fire”
Read part two of “my great-grandmother’s fire”
Last year, while in New York, I visited the site of the fire. The building, relatively new in 1911, had remained structurally unscathed by the flames. Only the contents of its upper foors were consumed. The day I visited was chilly, and I stood on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, staring up at the 9th floor from which so many unfortunates had plunged so many years ago. The street around the building was still paved in the original cobblestone, and I shuddered imagining the thud of impact, remembering those same cobblestones from the images in my giant red book of Disasters. I realized then how my very existence, the existence of my family, had come so very close to non-existence. The Butterfly Effect suggests that the flutter of an insects wings can impact or influence events halfway around the globe, and I understood now that the simple fact that my great-grandmother worked on the tenth floor of this building, and not the ninth, was the only reason I was standing here now. Her legacy: a huge family spread out over the United States: the Vacante, Nicastro and the Edwards clans of California, the Harvey and Jantz families in the midwest. The surnames of her descendants give proof to the American melting pot ideal. These children, grandchildren, great and great-great grandchildren exist now because of sheer luck, the completely random fact of where my great-grandmother was situated in that factory on that horrible day.
One hundred years ago this week, my great-grandmother left for work early in the morning, in a country where worker’s safety came second to the profits of company owners. By the time the day was over, everything had changed. Although it would take years to obtain all of the current protections and regulations workers now benefit from, that short-lived, devastating inferno finally made the public sit up and take notice, and finally, after years of struggle, gave workers a voice. As the flames of the Triangle Factory Fire were being extinguished that sad afternoon, the spark of outrage and demand for reform was already being fanned into its own unstoppable conflagration.
The current battle being waged between business interests and workers rights helps me appreciate the impact this fire has had on our society, illustrating that the fight for the right to organize, to bargain for fair pay and decent working conditions, is an ongoing battle that must continue to be waged. I also know that although i’ve come to think of this as my great-grandmother’s fire, I am no more connected to that terrible event than anyone who demands to be treated like a human being, paid a fair and competitive wage, and guaranteed a safe workplace.
Read more about the Triangle Factory Fire