There is a New York rite of spring that has nothing to do with daffodils or cherry blossoms or the arrival of warm sun.
It has to do instead with the simple business of working indoors, and the principle — now accepted by most of us as the natural order of things — that we all have a right to well-marked exits, fire-extinguishers, and unlocked doors.
This wasn’t always true, and the remnants of New York’s labor movement gather annually at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place to remind us of that. This is where, 99 years ago today, 146 people, most of them women and immigrants, perished in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory which occupied the top three floors of the ten-story building there. It was the worst factory fire in city history, and the reason so many died is because doors had been locked to both keep workers busy at their sewing machines, and to keep pesky union organizers from sneaking in. Locked inside the burning building, many jumped from the windows to their deaths on the sidewalk below. Witnesses described their bodies hitting the pavement as a steady, deadly drumbeat.
Today’s commemoration was sponsored by Workers United, which represents most of what is left of the city’s once mighty garment workers unions. Bruce Raynor, leader of that group, spoke, as did Jack Ahern, the new head of the city’s Central Labor Council. The city’s new fire commissioner, Sal Cassano, was there, and comptroller John Liu spoke as well.
A parade of school children wearing red plastic fire hats read the names of those who died, a fire bell tolling to mark each one. The names are a New York symphony: Lizzie Adler, Vincenza Benanti, Josie Del Castillo, Yetta Fichtenholtz, Ida Pearl, Clotilde Terranova, Tessie Weisner, Joseph Wilson.
After the ceremony, fire department officials lingered. They talked about the coincidence that today is also the 20th anniversary of another of the city’s worst fire tragedies: the 1990 blaze at an illegal social club in the Bronx. The place was called, of all things, Happy Land. Eighty-seven died there, almost all of them immigrants, the Daily News‘ Patrice O’Shaughnessy reminds us. A vacate order had been posted and ignored. When a spurned boyfriend lit a fire in a jealous rage, there was only one way out, and most didn’t make it.