Maltese collects tales of 1911 Triangle fire

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It has been 100 years since the horrific Manhattan fire that killed 146 people at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and launched the labor movement in the United States as well as the push for safety in the workplace, but a former borough lawmaker has been discovering more stories about the victims than ever before.

Former Glendale state Sen. Serphin Maltese has been keeping the memory of the fire alive in Queens through social media. He is the descendant of three of those victims: his grandmother Caterina, who was 38 when she died, and his two teenage aunts, Lucia and Rosarea.

And now he has connected with other descendants of the tragedy’s victims.

“We have heard from people from all over the world: Spain, Italy, Israel and South America,” Maltese said. A year and a half ago, he started a Facebook group called Triangle Workers Memorial Association, which has facilitated the connections and help get the word out to a greater audience.

For example, Maltese has been contacted by relatives of many of those workers, like the family of Jane Fazio, the elevator operator who ascended into the flames multiple times to ferry groups of women to safety and survived the fire.

The fire occurred March 25, 1911, when the top three floors of the Asch Building, at Washington Place and Greene Street, in Greenwich Village burst into flames. The mostly female garment workers had been locked into the rooms where they toiled for 12 hours a day by the owners of the factory.

Workers on the eighth and 10th floors lived, but the women on the ninth floor were pushed to desperation when option after option for escape ran out. The fire escape collapsed, the elevator broke down and the doors of the room opened inward and could not be forced ajar by the crowds of women pushed up against them. Despite the availability of sprinklers, they were not installed. The fire ladders at the time only reached to the sixth story.

Eventually, many choose to escape the fire in the arms of their co-workers as they embraced one another and leapt to their deaths in groups.

The aftermath of the fire brought major reforms of labor laws and increased workers’ rights. According to the Service Employees International Union, the fire led to the formation of the powerful garment workers union.

The U.S. Department of Labor also credits the fire with ushering in an era of gradually safer conditions in the workplace that eventually resulted in the creation of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Association.

Maltese will honor the victims at Christ the King High School March 25 at 7 p.m., where his wife will unveil a newly painted portrait of the three family members who perished in the blaze.

Also on March 25, a ceremony will be held at Mount Zion Cemetery in Maspeth at 1 p.m. for 15 victims of the fire. All Faith’s Cemetery in Middle Village will hold a memorial service March 23 for Bertha Greb, a Richmond Hill resident and the only victim of the fire interred at the cemetery.

The centennial comes just as several states in the country clash with the unions made possible by the tragedy. And according to Maltese, the fire should serve as a reminder of how far laborers have come in a century.

“The fact is whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you have to protect the people at the lowest rung of the ladder, and I do not agree with taking away the rights of collective bargaining,” he said. “The sweatshops of today still exist, it’s the immigrants that change. They are poor for the same reasons. They can’t get work anyplace else.”

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Updated 10:48 am, October 12, 2011
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