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GWEN IFILL: The book is “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.” The author is David Von Drehle, a reporter for The Washington Post. He tells the story of the 1911 inferno that engulfed the triangle shirt waste factory in New York. Within only 15 minutes, at least 140 workers, most of them immigrant Jewish and Italian women, perished. Decades later, the book recounts how the fire changed the course of American labor, politics and feminism, and ultimately set the stage for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. David, welcome.
DAVID VON DREHLE: Good to be here. Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: What made you curious about this topic? What made you decide to write about it?
DAVID VON DREHLE: I used to live in New York as a reporter. And I was out walking one day and passed a building with a historical marker on it that announced that this was the building in which the triangle shirtwaist fire had happened. The building is still there, part of New York University. And I found myself walking past it as I went around the neighborhood, and each time I would look up at the windows and wonder what actually happened there, and over time the wondering turned into research, which then eventually turned into this book.
GWEN IFILL: Tell me about the fire, because it’s something which niggles in the corners of our minds. We think we know what happened that day, but it was pretty horrific the way you write about it.
DAVID VON DREHLE: It was a stunning catastrophe really. It started in a bin of fabric scraps under a cutting table where they cut the pieces for these blouses. The Triangle Waist Company was the biggest maker of women’s blouses in New York, occupied the top three stories of a ten- story building. On the eighth floor they cut the pieces for thousands of blouses, and the scraps went into bins.
And at closing time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, somebody was sneaking a cigarette probably, dropped a match or a cigarette ash into one of these bins, and it went up like a firebomb. Within just five minutes, the entire 9,000 square feet of the eighth floor was a solid mass of flame. The workers on that floor barely escaped with their lives.
The workers on the top floor, the tenth floor, were alerted to the fire, and they escaped, most of them, by running to the roof and going to the adjoining buildings. But on the ninth floor, this was where 250 or so workers put the pieces together into finished blouses, long rows of sewing machines, and they didn’t get any notice of the fire until they saw the flames billowing up outside the windows. There was panic. The exits were inadequate. A fire escape collapsed. And one of the doors out of the factory was locked.
They locked the doors at closing time every day to prevent workers stealing garments. They had to pass by a night watchman and open their purses. And because that door was locked and the fire escape collapsed and flames cut off the other door, 146 workers died.
GWEN IFILL: Some people tried to jump into an elevator shaft, and the doors closed and died that way. Some people tried to jump out the windows. Now, of course, since 9/11 we’re all familiar with people who in their desperation to escape can actually leap out of a tall building. You write about it in an evocative manner. I wish you’d read a little bit for us.
DAVID VON DREHLE: I’d be happy to. “A young woman stood in a window as flames flickered around her. She flung her hat grandly into the air. Then she opened her purse and threw all the money down. Then she jumped. Two young women wrestled at another window. One was trying to keep the other one from jumping. She failed and her friend went down. The one remaining, Sally Winetrowd, steadied herself against the building, raised her hands and began gesturing.
“To those watching from far below she appeared to be delivering a speech to the nearby beautiful air. She finished speaking and followed her friend. Shepherd” — this was William Gun Shepherd, a newspaper reporter who saw this — “Shepherd saw a young man wearing a hat appear in a Washington place window. The man helped a young woman step onto the window sill, then held her away from the building like a dancer perhaps or, as Shepherd put it, ‘like a man helping a woman into a streetcar. He let go.
“‘He held out a second girl in the same way and then let her drop,’ Shepherd wrote. ‘Then he held out a third girl. They didn’t resist. The fourth one was apparently his sweetheart. Amazed, the bystanders saw them embrace and kiss. Then he held her out into space and dropped her, but quick as a flash he was on the windowsill himself. His coat flattened upward, the air filled his trouser legs. I could see that he wore tan shoes and hose. His hat remained on his head.'”
GWEN IFILL: David, you write about these women, many of them who worked in this … in this plant and who lost their lives, many of them immigrants, many of them not really completely English-speaking. Who, who were they?
DAVID VON DREHLE: Most of them were Eastern-European Jewish immigrants, and the rest were southern Italians. Young women, two women as young as 14 years old, died in this fire. They came to the United States, in the case of the Eastern Europeans, fleeing political and religious oppression in the dying Russian empire. I tell the story of one Rosie Friedman, a girl who at the age of 14 left her family in Bialystock, crossed Europe by herself, came across the Atlantic in steerage alone, arrived at New York to live with an aunt and uncle she probably had never met.
She went to work in the garment factories, paid room and board for her place to live, and somehow managed to send money home to support her family as well. You would think that this would be an extraordinary one-of-a-kind story, but there were hundreds of young people working at this factory much like this. They were astonishingly brave and resourceful people.
GWEN IFILL: And yet the fate of these people ultimately affected the course of American history in many ways. Presidents’ and mayors’ and governors’ careers were all affected by what happened that day, March 25.
DAVID VON DREHLE: It’s really quite amazing. This fire happened at precisely the moment that New York City politics were primed for an upheaval, a major shift. The city had been run by the corrupt Tammany Hall Machine for two generations, but Tammany, the Democratic Party, was being squeezed.
Below them they had a rising force of radical socialism in the working classes of the city, these newly organized garment workers who had political parties and labor unions and were asserting themselves as never before. And on the top end of the scale, there were middle-class and upper-class progressives, sort of Teddy Roosevelt Republicans. And when they got together on issues they could squeeze Tammany Hall and beat Tammany Hall.
The boss of Tammany, Charlie Murphy, chose this fire as a chance to embrace reform for the first time. The two young men who took the task and passed sweeping workplace and labor reforms went on to great careers. Al Smith was one; he became the governor of New York and ran for president.
Robert Wagner was the other; when a New York Democrat named Roosevelt got to the White House, Wagner essentially wrote the New Deal in the United States Senate. He passed the Social Security act, the unemployment insurance act, workers’ compensation — on and on, the things we live with to this day.
GWEN IFILL: And finally one of the things that always makes me curious about books like this is the reporter’s work. You assemble at the end of this book, the first complete, or as complete as you could make it, list of all the victims of this fire. Just describe how you did it.
DAVID VON DREHLE: Well, it had never been done before. The newspapers at the time were good at some things, but they didn’t have the interest in the specific lives that were lost. And after 9/11, I felt like this was something that needed to be done. So I combed miles and miles of blurry microfilm looking for names and eliminating names that were obvious misspellings or duplicates, and ultimately finally coming up with 140 names.
Six of the victims were never identified. I felt given the legacies that this fire and these victims left to us that it was something that history owed to them at least to record their names in one place.
GWEN IFILL: David Von Drehle, you have done a very good recording of the names. Thank you very much for joining us.
DAVID VON DREHLE: Thank you, Gwen.