Jonathan Orlofsky da: Triangle Shirtwaist Fire



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Jonathan Orlofsky
DA: Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

This essay is on the historical significance of a photo from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – a tragedy which occurred on May 25th, 1911 and killed 146 workers. The reason for selecting the photo, what can be deduced from looking at it, and supporting articles will be discussed. The addition the photo makes on the account will also be reviewed.

The photo selected is of Police and Fire Fighters lowering bodies from the factory (http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/primary/photosIllustrations/slideshow.html?image_id=761&sec_id=3#screen) – it is image 20 of 20 from the Cornell database on the subject. I chose this image because I believe the experience of the Police and Fire Fighters must have been one of torment, sadness and anger. I imagine they asked themselves question like “How could this have happened?” and “why was there no way out?” or “Is there some better option?” I could hardly fathom spending four hours lowering bodies, parts of bodies, and charred masses and bones to the ground; going through each floor and wondering what sort of twisted horrifying scene might lay before them. Did they see bodies huddled together? Remains crammed in corners? I fear to know the answers.

From the photo you can see the devastation the fire has wrought: the sidewalk is covered in soot, there are hoses running everywhere, and the firefighter in the photo is walking with a slump in his step – I can feel the anguish in his heart. A scorched remnant of a body is being lowered to the ground – it’s arms shrouding it’s face as if to shield it from the tremendous heat of the flames. The officer in the photo stands back from the remains as they are lowered, as if pieces may fall off on to him if he stood below it. If there were some sort of semblance of hope for the victim, I imagine the officer would be under the person with his hands high in the air – awaiting it’s arrival into his caring arms. Rather, the officer directs the black mass with the point of his arm.

There was an article published in 2005 which talks about the workforce movement, and labor laws spawning from this event. It expressed how public the tragedy was: “This was a story that could not be ignored, and it a became a pivotal event in the early twentieth-century that is frequently mentioned in histories of the period” [Burt, E. V. (2005). Working Women and the Triangle Fire Press Coverage of a Tragedy. Journalism History, 30(4), 189-199.]. Although labor disputes had begun before this atrocity, no one could refuse it now. If I had sat outside and watched men lower charred corpses for 4 hours I would also urged more aggressively for reform.

The Alan Brinkley text: The Unfinished Nation has a short piece on the fire. Of that, it mentions “…many of [the workers] had been trapped inside the burning building because management had locked the emergency exits.” This is particularly evident in the photo, because it took so long to clean up the area, and vacate the corpses.



In conclusion, the photo I’ve chosen can serve as a healthy reminder that labor laws are extremely important, and that we must do our best to keep each other safe. Without these rules, and ideals, we may experience another tragedy like The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911.


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