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Maltese marks Triangle fire

Serphin Maltese (r.) honored the memory of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire with a headstone at Calvary Cemetery. Maltese lost three relatives in the tragedy. Photo by Steve Mosco
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Serphin Maltese’s roots run deep in New York City and immigration history.

The former Queens state senator lost three family members in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — the 1911 tragedy that killed 146 workers in Manhattan underscored the lack of women’s rights and changed labor laws forever.

To honor his family and others lost in the fire, Maltese erected a headstone at Calvary Cemetery listing the names of the people buried at the Maspeth graveyard — 36 names in all.

“We felt that after over 100 years, it was time for these 36 victims to have a monument,” said Maltese, who lost his grandmother Caterina and two aunts, Rosaria and Lucia, in the blaze.

The factory was in the Asch Building, at 23-29 Washington Place, now known as the Brown Building. In March 1911, a fire broke out on the ninth floor of the garment factory. Many women were trapped and died because the building’s owners, fearing theft, had locked the doors, which would have led them to safety. A large number of the dead had jumped from the windows as a last resort to escape the flames.

The building has since been designated a National Historic Landmark and a city landmark.

The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

The idea to honor the dead with a headstone came when Charlie Esposito at Calvary Cemetery informed Maltese that his family had a reserved plot sitting empty in the cemetery. The plot had once held Maltese’s aunt Maria, who died at age 4 in 1906 after the long voyage from Italy to America.

When Maltese’s grandfather, Serafinio. had to bury his wife and two other daughters, victims of the Triangle fire, he moved Maria to the family plot.

“Maria’s death was the first tragedy to beset our grandfather,” he said. “When he lost his other two daughters and his wife at the terrible tragedy of Triangle, he subsequently moved Maria into the family plot and in the course of the years, we simply forgot about the [empty] plot.”

After conferring with his brothers and sister, they decided to donate the empty plot to the Triangle Memorial Association.

“This is a tragic immigrant story, but the memories of those lost cannot be forgotten,” said Esposito. “We will continue to honor their names here and, hopefully, a hundred years from now people will come here, see the names and honor them as well.”

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

Posted 5:05 pm, April 4, 2012
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