Finley Students Commemorate Triangle Shirtwaist Tragedy
History is one of the great passions of J. Taylor Finley Middle School English teacher Kimberly Schiller's life. She is particularly fascinated with the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire, which broke out at about 4:40 p.m. on Saturday, March 25, 1911. Within 15 minutes, 146 workers, mostly Jewish girls and young women between the ages of 13-23, were killed.
Ms. Schiller brings the long ago fire back to life each year for her Finley classes. She has participated in commemorations at the site of the deadly blaze, invited relatives of victims of the tragedy to Finley and had her students engage in readings about that infamous day.
A group of Finley students recently traveled to Manhattan with Ms. Schiller for the 101st commemoration of that dark day. In order to qualify for the trip, students wrote essays explaining the events that preceded the fire and the impact the tragedy had on labor in America.
"Before the commemoration, my students and I were a part of the Shirtwaist procession, a very poignant event that helps to memorialize the 146 lives that were lost in the fire," Ms. Schiller said.
According to the PBS website, "In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the shirtwaist blouse was regarded as the model shirt for the independent, working woman. A button-down blouse, the functional shirtwaist was valued for its ready-to-wear, workplace appeal and its simple design, originally modeled on menswear shirts."
The Finley contingent met event organizer Lulu Lolo Pascal at Gould Plaza near New York University. "She had our shirtwaists waiting there for us," Ms. Schiller said. "For the event, there is one shirtwaist for each victim and they are individually decorated with the name of the victim on a sash that drapes across the front of the shirtwaist. Then, they are attached to a bamboo pole so they float above our heads during the procession. It is a breath-taking sight; both sad and beautiful at the same time."
"The Triangle fire is a poignant part of our history and should be heard about more," student Alex Tacopina said. "The trip really showed me that the workers were really mistreated. Owners took advantage of the workers who perished. The trip was very moving for me and the ceremony was great."
The fire marshal at the time theorized a Triangle employee threw a lit cigarette into a wastebasket near piles of scrap cloth and not far from 40-gallon drums of lubricating oil stored in stairwells.
Factory Doors Were Padlocked
Triangle occupied the top three floors of the 10 story building, which was quickly engulfed in flames. Escape for some was impossible since many doors were padlocked to keep union organizers out and to stop workers from leaving early. Fire department ladders didn't reach high enough and those that jumped often went right through the tarps held by firemen on the street.
Days after the blaze in 1911, more than one million New Yorkers turned out to honor the victims. The tragedy led to a political upheaval and changes to the state's building codes and worker safety regulations with more than three dozen new factory laws enacted alone.
"My students were excited and honored to be a part of this event," Ms. Schiller said. "They recognized many of the names from the texts we have read in my English class. The students represented Finley very well. They were respectful and attentive. They also never shied away from a conversation. They were eager to learn more and ask the victim's relatives who were there questions."
Participants in the procession held the shirtwaists high as they walked from Gould Plaza down Washington Place to Greene Street where they reached the Asch building, the site of the Triangle fire.
"During the commemoration, we listened to speeches by politicians and relatives of the victims, like Diane Fortuna, whose great aunt Daisy Lopez Fitze died in the fire," Ms. Schiller said. "The students were moved by her story. The students were also very excited when the leader of the commemoration thanked the students of Finley Middle School for participating in the event. It was great to be recognized and we all cheered!"
Fire Ladder Symbolically Raised
Once the speeches wrapped up, a fire ladder was symbolically raised to the sixth floor, the highest the ladder reached on that fateful day. Then, the names of the 146 victims were read one-by-one, accompanied by the sounding of the fire bell.
"It was a very moving and emotional day," Finley student Sabrina Palacios said. "The experience overall was very harrowing. I loved that we got to parade the shirtwaists in the warm spring breeze in remembrance of that fateful day."
The Finley students grappled with all sorts of emotions before, during and after the trip. "At first I was nervous to go," student Julia Macedonia said. "So many people died there and I wasn't sure what it would be like. But, when we finally got there and marched with the shirtwaists proudly lifted into the air, I felt a sense of wonder. It seemed like too nice of a place from the outside to have such horrible things happening within."
The journey into Manhattan was a unique opportunity for the Finley students. "The trip was an amazing experience," student Fallon Hoffman said. "When everyone was talking, I realize a lot. Finding out that these kind of conditions are still around really opened my eyes. These things need to be stopped and I'm glad I was there to help."
The Triangle building still stands today and is owned by New York University, which uses it for science labs, among other purposes. It is located on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in the Lower East Side, near Washington Square Park in Manhattan.
"Overall, it was an amazing day," Ms. Schiller said. "I am very thankful that I can share an experience like this with my students."