Friday, March 25, 2011

One Hundred Years Ago Today

In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor— let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.
For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart, those greedy for gain curse and renounce the LORD.
In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”; all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”
Psalm 10:2-4

One hundred years ago today, just a few minutes before closing time on a Saturday, a fire started, probably in a waist bin, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, located on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of a Manhattan factory building. All but one of the exits had been locked to prevent the workers from taking unauthorized breaks.

Louis Waldman, later a New York State Assemblyman, was reading in a nearby library when he heard the fire companies responding. He ran out to join the crowd in the street and remembered the scene this way:

"Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies."
In the New York Times the next day the story included this grim report: “The victims who are now lying at the Morgue waiting for some one to identify them by a tooth or the remains of a burned shoe were mostly girls from 16 to 23 years of age.”

There were 146 victims in all, 129 of them women.

The Times suggested that the fire had been started by one of the machines, but an industry journal claimed that the more likely cause was smoking, which was forbidden in the factory. The industry report noted that the epidemic of factory fires was “fairly saturated with moral hazard.” In other words, the deaths were attributable to the moral failings of the workers.

The factory owners were tried for first and second degree manslaughter, but they were acquitted. The defense attorney asked a key witness, a worker who had escaped the fire, to repeat her testimony several times. After she repeated her answers almost word for word, he argued that this was evidence that she had been told what to say by the prosecutors and had memorized her testimony. Defense attorneys also claimed that the prosecution had not proved that the owners knew that the doors were locked at the specific time of the fire. Two years later, one of the owners was found guilty of illegally locking the doors on another factory and fined twenty dollars for the infraction.

When we look back, we are appalled. But it is only a few years ago that the fire at the Station night club claimed one hundred victims, and the cause of death was once again that exits were blocked, and they were not adequate. At the Station, they wanted to prevent patrons from entering without paying; at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, they wanted to prevent workers from leaving while they were being paid. But in both cases the issue was greed.

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