New Memorial Honors Victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

A total of 146 workers died in the 1911 disaster, which galvanized the fight for workers’ rights

Flowers at memorial
Flowers on the memorial for the 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire during its dedication on October 11 Sean Mackell / New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO

Until recently, a bronze plaque was the only marker indicating that the building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place was the site of New York City’s deadliest workplace disaster prior to the 9/11 attacks. On March 25, 1911, 146 workers—mostly young women, many of whom were immigrants—died when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Stymied by a broken elevator, a collapsed fire escape and a locked exit, many fell and jumped to their deaths on the sidewalk almost ten stories below.

The horrific event helped spur safety reforms, such as sprinklers in high-rise buildings, and galvanized a movement for workers’ rights, as David von Drehle wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2006. Frances Perkins, who witnessed the disaster unfold from the ground and later became the Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, pointed to that fateful day as the birth of the New Deal.

Now, over a century later, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, an organization of victims’ relatives and labor organizers, has unveiled a memorial honoring the victims of the fire and the tragedy’s role in the labor rights movement.

Steel plates
The memorial features steel plates fixed to the side of the building. Each victim’s name and age are cut into the steel, reflecting down onto street-level panels. Sean Mackell / New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO

“It is gratifying for all the family members of those who died in this tragic fire to know that through the memorial, this and future generations will learn about the fire and its significance in labor history,” said Suzanne Pred Bass, who is on the board of the coalition, during the dedication ceremony earlier this month, per the New York Times’ Lola Fadulu. Two of Bass’ great-aunts worked at the factory. One of them, Rosie Weiner, perished.

The memorial features steel plates fixed to the side of the building, which is now part of New York University’s campus. Each victim’s name and age are cut into the steel, reflecting down onto street-level panels, reports Hyperallergic’s Maya Pontone. Visitors to the site can also read accounts from eyewitnesses and information about the fire in English, Yiddish and Italian—the languages spoken by the workers.

The victims’ birth names are listed alongside their married names “so people would see how many relatives worked there and died there,” says Mary Anne Trasciatti, who helped lead the memorial initiative, to Vogue’s Laia Garcia-Furtado.

This winter, a steel ribbon reaching up to the building’s ninth floor, from which many jumped to their deaths, will be added to the site, per the Times.

Shirtwaists in the style of the blouses the factory workers made fly in the air at the memorial's dedication. Sean Mackell / New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO

The memorial is the work of Richard Joon Yoo and Uri Wegman, whose design was selected from nearly 180 proposals, according to Hyperallergic. Several years ago, the two invited members of the public to contribute pieces of fabric, which were joined into a 300-foot “collective ribbon,” reports Deepti Hajela of the Associated Press (AP). The ribbon’s design was then etched into the metal that will soon weave its way up the building.

Organizers of the project say the memorial is a reminder of how far the labor movement has come, as well as how much work remains.

“We forget a tragedy like this at our own peril,” Bass tells the AP. “We have the same issues—immigrant issues, safe working condition issues, abuse of women in the workplace issues. It’s not like any of these issues are all fixed.”

Recent crises like the Covid-19 pandemic have revealed that workplace protections are still lacking in many industries, Trasciatti tells Vogue. Still, she’s encouraged by the strikes in Hollywood and the auto industry, as well as ongoing unionization efforts across many sectors, and she hopes organizers can find strength in the new memorial.

“We want people to go there and be inspired,” she adds. “We want to say workers shouldn’t have to die for other working people to be safe, and we should all hold the government’s feet to the fire. We should unite with other workers.”

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