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Triangle Shirtwaist victims memorialized in Maspeth

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In 1911, a blaze on the top three floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. in Lower Manhattan killed 146 women in less than a half hour. The owners had locked the exits to keep the workers at their desks. Dozens of immigrant women, their dresses on fire, jumped from the 10-story building to their deaths.

Queens legislators last Thursday recalled The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire by dedicating a memorial at Mount Zion Cemetery to workers who died in the tragedy that spurred the modern workers’ rights movement.

Twenty fire victims are buried in the West Maspeth cemetery near the granite obelisk dedicated by state Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale) and a representative from the office of state Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Flushing).

Maltese’s relatives were killed in the fire, and he said the disaster has reverberated down through generations, shaping his world-view.

“Our grandmother and two aunts were among those killed in the tragedy. The family was cut in half,” Maltese said. “Originally impossible to identify, our grandmother was buried in Evergreen Cemetery without a name, only a number.”

Outrage over the fire spurred the modern labor movement, said Jeff Gottlieb, special assistant to McLaughlin, who is also a powerful labor leader in the city.

Lighted exits, sprinkler systems, fireproof buildings, child labor protections, and limits on workers’ hours are just some measures that became law in the wake of the catastrophe.

But even a century after the blaze, he said thousands of clothing factories in the city are in non-compliance with modern fire and safety regulations. It is something that legislators and citizens must work to remedy so that history does not repeat itself, he said.

“All firehouses should be open in the city,” he said. “We hope to never see his again.” Gottlieb said.

The Shirtwaist fire occurred in the Asch building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington place, where 500 women worked, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrants, according to the Encyclopedia of New York City. It started at 4:30 p.m. in the eighth-floor cutting room and, fed by thousands of pounds of fabric, spread swiftly.

Most workers on the eighth and tenth floors escaped, but workers trapped on the ninth floors perished, unable to open the locked exits. A rear fire escape, which could not support the scores of panicked workers, collapsed.

Several workers who tried to shimmy down an open elevator shaft fell to their death. Others jumped from open windows. Responding fire engines were slowed by bodies on the street, and their ladders only extended to the sixth floor. Their life nets snapped when workers jumped in groups of two or three.

In the wake of the fire, the city established the Bureau of Fire Investigation, which strengthened the Fire Department’s control over factory safety.

The owners of the company were acquitted on charges of manslaughter but later ordered in 1914 to pay damages of $75 each to the families of 23 victims that sued.

Reach reporter Matthew Monks by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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