Indiana University East students will take part in a national effort to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire by hosting a poetry reading and PBS feature film. Both events are free and open to the public.
The company, which produced women’s shirtwaist dress shirts, became infamous for the most deadly workplace fire in New York state’s history, resulting in changes to legislation to improve working conditions and labor laws.
The first event is “Fragments from the Fire” at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 16, in the Whitewater Hall Community Room. Mary Fell, professor of English, will have students in her poetry and advanced poetry writing courses read poems reflecting on the fire. Fell also will read from her poem “The Triangle Fire” from her sequence of poems The Persistence of Memory.
On Thursday, March 17, the PBS American Experience video, “The Triangle Fire,” will be aired at 6 p.m. in Vivian Auditorium.
The School of Humanities and Social Sciences, History Club, Humanities Club, and Honors Program are sponsoring the events.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located in Greenwich Village in New York , near Broadway and Washington Streets. The factory occupied the eighth to tenth floors of the Asch Building.
On March 25, 1911, the day of the fire, about 500 workers were present, most of them immigrant Italian and Russian (Jewish) women and girls. The fire broke out at the end of the work day.
Despite a smoking ban, it is suspected the disposal of a match or cigarette butt discarded into one of the fabric scrap bins, or an overheated motor operating the sewing machines, ignited the flame. When the fire broke out on the eighth floor, workers were trapped with little chance of escape. All but one entrance was locked at all times and one insufficient fire escape collapsed during the fire. Freight elevators were not in use; passenger elevators could make only three trips to the floors above before the fire melted the cables. One hundred and forty six people died in the fire that lasted for only the span of a half an hour.
Constructed to be fire proof, the building continues to stand today and is part of the New York University campus.
In the aftermath of the fire, the owners of the factory were exonerated of any blame for the deplorable conditions which led to the fire and the terrible loss of life. The owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were found not guilty of charges. Labor Union’s efforts to organize garment workers and the fight for safer working conditions intensified in the wake of the fire.
“Since then, the fire has remained bright in the memory of many people, and books have been written about it. Poets have written about it, particularly women poets,” Fell said. “Across the country, events are being planned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire.”