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Three years ago, my knowledge of my paternal grandmother, born Annie Sprinsock, was at best sketchy. A Russian-Jewish immigrant to New York City, she lived a tragically truncated life marked by recurrent bouts of melancholia until her death at the young age of 34 in 1929. My father, deeply pained by her untimely death, rarely spoke of her to my brother and me when we were children -- except to say that she had been at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the day of the infamous fire.
Then in 2008, what began as my innocent Google search of Annie astoundingly led to seeing her listed as a survivor in Cornell University Kheel Center's Triangle Fire Archive. My cousin Steven dug deeper into the Archive, discovering a New York Times article about 17-year-old Annie's "heroic deed": saving her friend by holding her above her head as the last elevator down had no floor space left. Since 2008, researcher Michael Hirsch has pieced together information that my grandmother worked as a sewing machine operator on the ninth floor, where only half the employees survived. Hirsch has also confirmed that she saved Katie Weiner, the last known girl to escape the inferno which took the lives of 146 mostly young, immigrant Italian and Jewish women.
In my imagination, the previous outline of my grandmother gave way to a more definite form through this ordinary 17-year-old girl's extraordinary act of courage. What a precious gift this story has become to Annie's descendents. For my 82-year-old Aunt Beverly, who was an infant when her mother died, it was as if she could almost hear her mother's voice as Annie told of her escape in the New York Times piece. If that were the only gift, I would have been more than satisfied. But Annie's story has given our family a lost mother and a never-known grandmother whose presence of mind and moxie helped save a life.
Last spring, I joined the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, a 'big tent' type organization of artists, activists, academics, family members and anyone else wanting to create commemorative events in New York and across the country. By November, I had became co-chair of the Northern California Triangle Fire Committee which is now in full gear planning and executing events, combining poetry readings, performing arts, activism to educate people in the Bay Area about this historic event. Although the fire took place in New York, it had national impact on how Americans view the role of government and other institutions such as labor unions in protecting workers' rights, safety and health. That issue is as relevant today as it was a century ago.
As much as my grandmother's story captured my imagination, the lessons of the Triangle Fire have reignited my own social activism. I was outraged when I read this past December about a fire similar to the Triangle Fire which swept through a multi-story garment factory in Bangladesh, killing too many young women. Just as in the American garment industry in the early twentieth century, greed and profit trumped fire safety and worker protection. Increasingly, I have begun to look at the social responsibility statements of the companies from which I purchase my latest fashion statements. I want the young women making clothes in Asia to be as safe in their workplace as if they worked in the United States.
On the centennial of the Triangle Fire, my family will join Katie Weiner's descendents in front of her residence in 1911 at St. Marks Place to write commemorative messages on the sidewalk in chalk. Also that day, as I participate in the official centennial remembrance of the fire, I will think of my grandmother Annie and those who have fought since the fire for the protection of workers' safety. A century later, the Triangle Fire remains an enduring legacy with global implications.
Eileen Boisen Nevitt is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in geriatric care management. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two adult sons.
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