On Wednesday, hundreds gathered on lower Manhattan to pay tribute to the 146 workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The fire – which took place 105 years ago today – was the worst industrial disaster in the history of the city. Today, 90 teams of artists are drawing chalk figures on sidewalks with details of each worker who died in the fire. As Elizabeth Brockway reports, participants at both events says the effects of that fire are still being felt today.
BROCKWAY : It was a Saturday afternoon, just before closing time, on March 25, 1911. It was most likely a cigarette ash falling into a bin of scrap cloth that started the flames that killed over a hundred workers. Today, Ruth Sergel is decorating sidewalks in front of the homes of those who died that day.
SERGEL : Right now we’re at 19 Clinton Street just below Houston and we’re chalking Becky Neubauer who was 19 years old and lived in walking distance of the factory.
BROCKWAY : Like Neubauer, many workers were women in their teens and 20s. The youngest was just 14. Sergel started Chalk over a decade ago as a memorial.
SERGEL : I think the idea behind it was partly frustration with the idea that we always say never again or we will never forget but we always do forget and these things happen again and again.
BROCKWAY : Mary Anne Trasciatti is the president of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. The group organizes an official commemoration each year in honor of those who died in the fire. She says, the factory owners were focused on profit, not safety.
TRASCIATTI: And the building was fire proof, but everything inside, of course, was not. Workers on the ninth floor were trapped and 146 people died. 62 of them jumped from the ninth floor to their death on the sidewalk below.
BROCKWAY : Approximately 150 survived. The tragedy helped prompt significant progress for national worker rights and safety regulations.
NOEL: This is something that could have been avoided had worker protections been in place. We know that the doors were locked in the factory to prevent union organizers from coming in and to protect theft and workers were trapped inside the building.
BROCKWAY: Cara Noel is with the New York City chapter of the AFL-CIO. It represent over a million workers and 300 unions in the city.
NOEL: And we’re here just saying we remember and we’re recommitting to making sure that workers have what they need in New York City and around the world.
BROCKWAY: Noel says it’s goal is to ensure that worksites have proper regulations in place, ones that would have helped prevent the Triangle fire. Unfortunately, many of these safety protocols were only installed because of Triangle. But while there has been significant improvement since the fire, Noel said workers are still fighting.
NOEL : They are better off now than they were 105 years ago, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.
BROCKWAY :In 2013, the AFL-CIO reported that just over 4,500 workers were killed on the job in the US and more that 50,000 died from occupational diseases. Today, Ruth Sergel has teams all across the city — from Harlem, to the LES, to Brownsville and even one in Hoboken. Their goal is to make sure all 146 people who died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire are remembered. Elizabeth Brockway, Columbia Radio News.