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TRIANGLE by David Von Drehle


The Fire That Changed America

by David Von Drehle

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-87113-874-3
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

A vivid recounting of the 1911 blaze that until the World Trade Center attack was the worst workplace disaster in New York history.

On March 25 of that year, a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Company in Greenwich Village. In a half-hour, 146 people were killed, 123 of them women. Washington Post journalist Drehle (Among the Lowest of the Dead, 1995) fleshes out the social and political background to the conditions that made the tragedy inevitable. Abysmal pay and harassment for petty work violations had prompted a massive waist-workers’ strike in New York the year before. Nor was the fire unusual or unforeseen; one historian estimated that at the time, a hundred accidents occurred in American workplaces each day. The largest blouse-making operation in New York, the Triangle sweatshop employed 500 or more workers, mostly Jewish and Italian, who toiled on the upper floors just beyond the reach of fire department ladders. The victims’ doom was sealed when a rickety fire escape collapsed, and they couldn’t open a door kept locked because the owners feared employee theft. Though the owners were acquitted of manslaughter charges, the outrage that swept the city led to changes in laws concerning workplace safety and the rights of labor. Reaction to the Triangle disaster also foreshadowed a national political realignment as urban Democrats became the shock troops of FDR’s coalition. Drehle enhances his narrative with colorful portraits of principal players, including flamboyant defense attorney Max Steuer; Charles Whitman, the politically ambitious district attorney of New York; Tammany Hall boss Charles Murphy; and his Albany lieutenants Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, who staved off socialist insurgency by passing 25 workplace safety bills in 1912. More remarkably, the author manages to piece together from news accounts and a long-lost trial transcript the lives and aspirations of the accident’s victims.

Compelling, in-depth look at a tragedy that deserves to be better remembered. (8-page b&w insert, not seen)