Conflagration and Wage: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911

—The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire in New York City on March 25, 1911. 146 workers perished. The majority of the victims were young women who had immigrated to America. Poor working conditions in the factory, insufficient escape methods, and the negligence of the building’s owners exacerbated the tragedy. The collective outrage after the fire led to heightened support for labor unions as well as significant labor reform.

1. Arrival

The arrival of a dream is never as a seed.
Instead, the vision comes full form.
It stirs the way a dog will startle
in his sleep and bark at air, at shadows.
Rising from her bed, a woman dresses
in the dark. Her brother and her father
snort in sleep. Their snores, she thinks,
are like the sounds of engines sputtering.
She steps into her dress and draws it up
and over what she wears to bed before
she lets the sleeping gown release and fall
about her feet. She learned to dress with men
around her long before she started work.
The dream that came to her, that brought her here,
was not a dream of silence, but of words—
a language she had never known, the names
like chimes. Surrounded by the snores of men,
the woman heats a cup of coffee on the stove,
then carves a peach in darkness, lifting pieces
from the blunt side of the blade to mouth.

2. The First Day

A father leads his daughter to the door.
She’s wrapped her thimble, scissors,
and a loaf of bread in newspaper, then slid
two needles carefully into her coat’s lapel.
When asked, in coming years, what she remembers
most, she says the doorknob’s porcelain,
its coldness, white as bone. The street’s just wide
enough for wagons passing side by side.
Her father stands across the street. He lifts his hand
as if to call her back, then pauses, holds his fingers
to his mouth. The door is slow to close behind her,
latching as she climbs the flight of stairs.
She moves her hands along the metal
of the upper door until she finds its handle.
Light extends around the frame the way
the moon, when passing in eclipse,
will form a ring of fire. And then, at once,
a whirring sound like insects fills the air.
The room is thick with garments, bolts of cloth,
and everywhere she looks no eyes meet hers.

3. The Will to Please

The smell of men is like the smell of earth—
the slight discoloring of clothes, a brownish-yellow
underneath the armpits, collars limp from heat,
the cuffs rolled back and slid above the elbows.
Silent in the shop, her hands in lap, a girl has come
for work and sewn the garments given her—
a test as much for willingness, as skill.
The man who runs the shop is like a sentry
at her side. He pulls against the stitches
with a needle, trying every seam. There’s coldness
in the room, a draft, and still he sweats,
two worms descending from his temples to his jaw.
The sourness that rises from his clothes
is like a fog. The only prize is labor—
cloth he brings and lays across the table.
Work engenders work. At home, she stands before
her husband’s nakedness. Their clothes are scales
to her. The seize of skin is like a wave—
the body’s weight, the pubis cold
with sweat, and even then, the scent of work.

4. Letter from a Young Woman to Her Mother

I want you here now more than ever.
Money comes so slowly. Every day I save.
I’ve dreamt of home for months: the smell
of lilacs in the garden, Sister’s voice in prayer
across the table, fingers interlaced in mine.
I cry each night returning to my room.
The silence there is lonelier than any sound.
Each night, a part of me expects to hear you
when I step inside the door, and every night
that part of me draws back when no one answers.
Silence is a type of dream for me.
Imagine what the three of us would say
around a table filled with meat and bread,
with butter and, for each of us, a glass of wine
(although I know you say I shouldn’t drink).
I do my best to hope for smaller things—
the sound of money in the jar, a better job.
Some nights I tell myself that you have come.
I see you standing in the doorway to my room,
but even in my dreams your voice is gone.

5. The Building and the Body

A row of windows spans the far side of the room,
the only light. Most girls must work by lanterns,
even in the daytime. Summer turns to fall,
to winter. Overcoats are hung on hooks, the hats
on pegs. The sounds of rain, the sounds of wind,
are barely heard. The building stifles speech,
absorbs the women’s words the way two hands,
when cupped above a candle flame, will press
against its heat. The only mark of time is carried
in the body. Hair turns gray so quickly that a girl,
at first, will pluck a single strand, and then,
by end of year, her locks will lose all darkness.
Color fades from skin and shadows form
like crescents underneath the eyes.
The body’s surest loss is form. Within a week,
the back will tighten. Muscles of the neck
will ache. The shoulders and the hands,
the upper arms, will knot and cramp. The work
of time is like a specter in the room, a silent form,
a flickering of candle flame and shadow.

6. The Fire Begins

A cord extends from wall to wall, a hanging line
for cloth, the folds of fabric like a galleon’s sails.
What startles first—the sound, or heat or light?
A girl looks up from work, her features calm.
Her hands are flat against the bench, her triceps
and her shoulders tense. She doesn’t rise at first,
but stares, as do the other girls, at wings of fire—
the fabric burning on the line. What beast
has entered here, has climbed the stairs in silence?
What will burn—the walls and ceiling, beams
and floor? The makers of the building claim
it “fireproof,” an invitation, words becoming form.
Perhaps the women disbelieve at first—a shudder
in the chest, a feeling of embarrassment, as if a girl
has said, unmeaning to, the name of whom she loves.
The clarity of fear is like a net. Nobody moves.
And then, as if it were a parlor trick, the cord
that holds the cloth burns through and fire is given
motion, sweeping through the air, two vines of flame,
the swatches shedding light and smoke and ashes.

7. Smoke and Light

The body is a bull. It seizes at the scent of smoke.
The nostrils flair. Its pulse becomes a drum
repeating through the arms, the chest, the tunnels
of the ears. The truth of fear is that emotion dims.
All thought dissolves in muscle, memory in bone.
The leisure of desire—the future one assumes—
evaporates like breath on glass. And at the vision
of the fire, perhaps the words that hover
in the sound of labor, words the women speak
into machines, into the pull, the forward motion
of a needle driving into cloth, become the sound
of breath, the sound of air releasing. Light is always
light and in the moment when the women rise—
before the heat becomes a wall, before it sweeps
against them, pressing each girl back, a heat
that almost lifts them from the ground—perhaps the light
is like a beacon in the room. Instead of passing
over them, it holds, a giant eye illuminating
them as strangers, children in a row, as women lifting
dresses to their knees and wading from a shore.

8. Samuel Levine, a Machine Operator, Escapes Through the Elevator Shaft

I heard the shout of, “Fire! Fire!” and saw the stairs
in flames, the women running towards the elevator doors.
The elevator didn’t pause in its descent, but passed our floor.
The bodies in the elevator car were packed so closely
that it could not fit another person, even if it stopped.
Three girls, their clothes on fire, ran shrieking past.
I grabbed two pails of water that we kept for fire
and tried to douse the girls, but they were heading
towards the windows, farther back into the room.
The elevator did not rise again, and when I pried
the doors (I must have done this with my hands,
my shoulder—even now I can’t remember) I could see
the elevator’s roof below me at the bottom of the shaft,
eight floors below. I grabbed the cables, wrapped
my legs around them. Hand by hand (or really arm
by arm, the cables clutched against my chest),
I lowered through the air. Two bodies, weighted
shadows, tumbled from above. I fell in darkness.
When I woke, a woman was beneath me—then
the shouts of men, the sound of axes on the doors.

9. Return to Me

A woman thinks these words and they become
an echo in her mind, a sound repeating in the body.
Whose they are, she doesn’t know: the brother
whom she left behind, last seen receding
on a cobbled street, two canvases, unpainted,
dangling from his handlebars, the bags looped
one beneath each hand? The arches of his feet,
the paleness of that skin, revealed in flashes
as he pedaled from her. Maybe, when the fire
begins, the voice becomes her father’s voice?
In dreams he swims to her, his shoulders
sunburned, pink above the surface of a lake.
She’s ten-years-old and he must coax her
slowly from the dock, her hands pressed
palm to palm and raised above her head.
Her father, now an aging man, calls out
in sleep so that his wife will run her hand
across his abdomen and pull him towards her.
What will settle him? What voice returns?
What tenderness of memory or dream?

10. The First Sighting

A window sash, eighth floor, thrown open.
Yellow flame. A body silhouetted in the window.
Light becomes a seething curtain. Stepping
to the ledge, a woman hesitates and slips
her handbag on her wrist, then jumps, her body
whirling through a canopy of woven wire
and glass. The other girls begin to follow.
Women can be seen from far away, their bodies
dark against the backdrop of the flames.
Their voices are consumed by fire. They fall
together, sisters on the ledge, their arms entwined.
The fire becomes a part of them, a ghost
in clothes and hair. It never seems to waver,
even in their falling. Shouting from the street,
the passersby call out for help, for time.
The women do not look away as other women fall.
Some force is over them, some force behind.
They plunge so quickly from the ledge they seem
inhuman, thrown, but then there are the arms
and hands amid the flames, the open mouths, the eyes.

11. Jimmy Lehan, a Traffic Squad Policeman, Saves Several Girls on the Eighth Floor

The fire was at its height. Not knowing
what to do, I ran into the building—
anything to spare me from the scene outside.
I climbed the stairs as high as I could go.
The eighth-floor door was barred by something
on the other side. The stairs were full of smoke
and I could hardly see or breathe. I braced
myself against the door and broke it inward.
Truthfully, I was surprised how easily it gave.
I felt like I was standing in the belly of a dragon.
Everywhere I looked was smoke and fire.
The building’s beams, the walls and ceiling,
seemed to writhe. And then I saw the group
of girls. They huddled close together.
When I yelled to them they did not move.
I ordered them to come to me, but nothing
seemed to stir them. Then I used my club.
I struck them into life. They moved together
like a herd. I felt so large against them,
forcing them together down the stairs.

12. Images from the Street I

On a window ledge eight inches wide,
six girls appear in single file and creep
their way along the building, ten floors high,
until they reach a swaying wire that spans
the street. The leader waits for all the other girls.
They grab the wire in unison and when
it snaps like rotten whipcord in their hands
they fall together, tumbling through the air.
A girl is standing in a window frame.
She throws her pocketbook, her hat and furs,
before she jumps. A young girl holds
for several minutes to a windowsill,
the flames increasing at her fingertips.
She drops into a life net held by firemen.
When two other women fall into the net it tears
beneath them. Five girls smash a pane of glass
while, from an eighth-floor windowsill, a girl leaps
for a fireman’s ladder that extends six floors.
She does not reach it in her jump and lands
halfway within a net, her body breaking at the waist.

13. Images from the Street II

A young boy, falling from an upper floor,
is caught, unharmed, by two patrolmen bracing
for him, though the three of them are knocked
together to the ground. A young man helps a girl
onto a windowsill, then holds her out, deliberately,
and lets her drop. He holds a second girl
and does the same, and then a third. He helps
a girl who puts her arms around him. When she kisses
him, he holds her close before he lets her go.
And then the man is on the ledge himself, the fire
behind him, swelling in the room. He leaps
with such authority—his coattails fluttering behind,
his hat on head, his pant legs filled with air.
The women on the ninth floor press against
the windows. No one jumps. They seem to fight
against the glass until whatever holds them
breaks—the windows coming lose, the bricks
and stone—and down they come in groups,
unluckiest of all, their bodies indiscernible
in flames. They fall inertly, torches in the air.

14. Charles T. Kremer and Elias Kanter, Two NYU Law Students, Save 150 People by Extending Ladders from the Roof of the Adjacent NYU Law Building

We heard a strange commotion rising from the street
and when we looked we saw the signs of fire—the smoke
and flames beginning in the building, women calling out
for help, yet no one was around, no firemen, no police.
I grabbed my friend Elias and we hurried to the roof.
I knew these girls. I’d seen them everyday.  I knew them
from their strike a year ago, but even more than that
I knew them from routine. I knew their groups. I knew
the way they shuffled as they walked. I knew the way
that some of them would stare into the slit of sky between
the buildings overhead, while other girls would never
take their focus off the ground. I’d seen them
in the market as they picked a piece of fruit by holding
it between a finger and a thumb and lifting,
like a wineglass to their eyes, the apple or the pear.
And when I tried to talk to them they nodded
or they smiled, but something in between us held them
back. What I remember most is how they’d laugh.
It always seemed to come unbidden, rising when
they were in groups, or leaving at the end of day.

15. Charles T. Kremer on the Triangle Factory Roof

Elias tied two ladders end on end; then I climbed
down and tried to get the women and the men
to form a single line. My friends were waiting
up above. Their arms reached out and pulled a person
from my sight whenever he or she would reach
the ladder’s top. The rooftop’s other side was filled
with fifty men and women fighting as they tried
to climb the five-foot wall that gave them access
to another roof adjacent on the Greene Street side.
The last group near my friends had cleared the ledge
when I descended through the scuttle in the roof
and found one girl. She ran to me, her hair on fire,
and fainted in my arms. I used my hand to smother
out the sparks. I carried her back out and there
was Kanter standing at the bottom of the ladder.
When we climbed with her I wrapped my fingers
in her hair, my other arm around her chest so that
I would not let her go, my hands fixed firmly
on the ladder’s rungs. The hands that took us
at the top were strong as vices, lifting us on air.

16. Images from the Street III

The first physician to arrive is rushing to the side
of every girl who jumps. He gives to her a hypodermic
shot to lessen pain. He treats the girls he finds still
breathing, though they all expire before more help arrives.
The fire is out in half-an-hour. Water fills the street.
The crowds have swarmed the scene and they are either
stunned to silence, or they’re calling out the names
of friends and family members who cannot be found.
Policemen move among the bodies of the girls
and fasten to the wrists a tag the officers must
number with a pencil. In a row across the street,
one hundred coffins made of pine lie side by side.
The bodies placed in them are taken to the morgue
at Bellevue Hospital or to a temporary morgue along the pier.
Three officers are carrying two woven baskets
filled with handbags, money, jewelry and combs.
Four hours from the fire’s start, a young man’s found
immersed in water to his neck within the corner
of the basement. When he speaks he seems
delirious, repeating to the men his sister’s name.

17. Identifying Bodies at the Twenty-Sixth Street Pier

Policemen stand among the rows of coffins.
Holding lanterns out, the men illuminate the dead
as crowds file past. The women and the men
all move in single file. They lean in close or glance
ahead as if they’re watching for a ship. The coffins
line the inside of the pier and when a body is identified
the lid is closed, the coffin taken from the row.
The husbands and the wives, the daughters
and the sons, respond by sometimes falling
to their knees, or turning back, the crowd dividing.
What familiar item draws the family members
from the line—a ring, a scarf, a mended stocking?
In the moment when the men and women recognize
the body lying at their feet a stillness enters them:
a mother’s posture straightens, palms together
at her waist, her fingers intertwined; a father tugs
the bottom of his jacket, starts to speak, then only nods.
The officers must hold the lanterns through the night.
What preparation steadies men for this?
What training stills the light within their hands?

18. A Young Woman After Escaping the Fire

I pushed my way into the crowd and strangers
closed around me.  Walking through them felt
like I was passing through a storm. The water
in the street was to my ankles. When a woman placed
her hands against my shoulders so that I would stop,
I raised my head. She seemed so angry, almost shaking me.
She said that I must wait; I must not leave. She asked
my name and when I didn’t speak she turned to stop
another girl. I felt the urge to run. A man reached out
and took my wrist, but when I shook him loose
he backed away. I slid between the men and women
in the crowd until it parted right in front of me.
I’d walked this route for months. I knew the buildings,
knew the sounds of venders in the streets, the smell
like rotten fish that rises from the grates. A man across
the street walked briskly back and forth. He’d start to run,
then stop and walk the other way. He called a woman’s name.
He grabbed at strangers, turned them towards him.
Something in him made them still, some wildness
as he searched each face before he let them pass.

-originally printed in TriQuarterly