The Triangle Fire New York Tragedy Changed America

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“The Triangle Fire
New York Tragedy Changed America” Washington Post September 9, 2003

By David Von Drehle

Imagine: Instead of starting high school, you must leave your family and friends to cross the ocean on a steam- ship crowded with strangers, bound for a job in a faraway country.

You can’t speak the language of your new country. Your new home is with relatives you have not seen in years.

Fear. Loneliness. Homesickness.

Rosie Freedman did it. Rosie was 14 years old in 1907. She had seen her city in Russia burn in a hate-filled riot. Her family sent her across the Atlantic Ocean aboard a steamship to live in crowded, smelly New York City with an uncle and aunt.

Rosie found a job at a crowded fac- tory making clothes from morning to night. At first she earned less than 50 cents a day and had to pay all her own bills. She even had to pay her uncle for a place to sleep in his tiny apartment.

But somehow, by the time she was 18 years old, Rosie was sending enough money home to support her family
in Russia. And she was not unusual. Thousands of young people in those days worked to support their faraway families. Rosie worked at the big-

gest blouse factory in New York, the Triangle Waist Company, with girls such as Kate Leone and Sara Maltese, who were just 14 themselves.

On March 25, 1911, a match or ciga- rette ember in a pile of fabric scraps started a fire inside the Triangle fac- tory, high above the New York City streets. Rosie, Kate and Sara worked on the ninth floor, along with about 250 other blouse makers, mostly women and girls.

The fire started on the eighth floor, where the workers barely managed to escape. On the 10th floor, workers sur- vived by running to the roof. But most of the ninth-floor workers, 146 of them, were trapped. The fire escape collapsed. The elevators could no longer run. The door to the last staircase was ... locked.

The New York City Fire Department’s tallest ladder was raised outside the factory — but it reached only the sixth floor.

Some victims jumped out the win- dows. Some, including Rosie, Katie and Sara, stayed inside and died. It was the worst workplace disaster in New York history until Sept. 11, 2001.

And just as 9/11 happened in broad daylight, with cameras watching,
the Triangle fire happened in broad daylight on a beautiful spring day. Thousands of people rushed to the scene to watch the awful sight.

Afterward, there was plenty of talk about making workplaces safer. But in those days, more than 100 people died on the job in America every day. Mines collapsed, ships sank, locomotives crashed, exposed machinery grabbed workers by the arm or leg or hair and pulled them in.

Yet the government did little to pro- tect workers — until the Triangle fire.

The people of New York were out- raged by what happened to so many young people such as Rosie Freedman.

Over the next four years, New York passed a record number of laws to protect workers, especially very young workers. By the middle of the century, there were new worker safety laws

all across America. Rosie Freedman must have felt very insignificant as she sailed to New York. But the courage and sacrifice of young people such as Rosie Freedman changed the course of the 20th century. That’s the good part of the awful story of the Triangle Waist Company fire.

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