It was many years ago when I read about the triangle fire. It was this tragedy that really led to a lot of the workplace safety rules that we have in place now. Because we Americans have the collective memory of a gnat, we have to learn these lessons over and over again.
The 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. Fire this Friday should throw into sharp relief recent efforts by lawmakers in Wisconsin and other states in the industrial heartland to curtail collective-bargaining rights for state employees.
The Triangle fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, killed 146 people, mainly women, mainly young immigrant women. Some were girls of 14 and 15. The fire broke out on the upper floors of the factory, too high for fire department ladders of those days to reach. People gathered on the street below watched in horror as women and men jumped to their deaths to avoid the enveloping flames. Observers talked of the sky raining flaming bodies. Many of the workers trapped inside were burned beyond recognition.
It was all over in half an hour. But the events of that day were permanently burned into the collective memory of the city and the nation. New Yorkers were shocked and grief-stricken. Some 100,000 people filed by the makeshift coffins gathered on the 26th Street Pier, which became known as "Misery Lane." A few days later, 350,000 people turned out for a march through through Lower Manhattan, many to vent their anger and express their determination that tragedies such as this should never be allowed to happen again.
After all, the tragedy was not a natural disaster but a man-made one, too, frighteningly typical of this age of laissez-faire capitalism. The technology to prevent or confine such fires -- sprinkler systems, fire walls, secure and ample fire escapes -- all had been available for years. Moreover, fires had broken out at Triangle before, as they had in many other industrial workplaces. But no local, state or federal law required that these safety devices be installed or that safety protocols be followed. And manufacturers like the owners of the Triangle Co. didn't want to spend the money.