Today in History: Triangle Fire, 100 Years

Police Officer, Bodies of Triangle fire victims at feet looking up at workers poised to jump from the upper floors of the burning Asch Building

Tonight, I peer up ten stories and 100 years back into the wind and see flaming skirts billowing as they come crashing down to the pavement where I stand. At this very moment, 100 years ago, my great-grandfather Max Blanck was probably making sure his six children were all safely in bed. Tomorrow, as we gather on Green Street in New York City, someone will inevitably, angrily, say something about the cruel-hearted men that sent 146 people to their deaths. Tomorrow, 100 years ago, a fire will have raged through The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, women will have flung themselves out of a burning building, fingers will have started to point, history will forever be changed.

"Not guilty" was the verdict for Max Blanck. Not guilty, and yet, forever guilty. Three generations later, and we all still feel confused. How was his character? Was he a cold-blooded killer who didn't learn from his mistakes, or a business minded Russian immigrant who lost his luck in a tragedy of capitalist proportions? The firemen's ladders couldn't reach past the 5th floor. The fire escapes crumbled under the heat of the flames. The rooms were too narrow with too many tables stacked together. There was nothing except a few small buckets of water to extinguish the flames. The telephone operator forgot to alert the 9th floor. The nets were too weak to hold the weight of the women as they jumped two and three at a time, hand-in-hand out of the windows. The door was locked. The door was locked? Max Blanck, who along with Isaac Harris was the owner of Triangle, was accused of keeping the doors locked from the outside in order to keep the women in. It was said he locked them in to prevent theft; locked them in to prevent unionization. He said he didn't know they were locked, and the jury couldn't prove that he knew. No one can tell me of his character: any relatives who knew him are long gone, but I think I can safely assume that my great-grandfather wouldn't have offered his brother-in-law and three other relatives jobs in the factory knowing it would inevitably cost them their lives. Not even the snakiest of snakes would have... could have. My grandfather was shunned out of New York after the fire. He moved to California. With tragedy, rebirth. Generations came afterwards. My grandfather met my grandmother. My mother met my father. Without the fire, I would not be. More importantly however, without the fire, building safety codes would not be. Garment workers unions would not be. Society as we know it, would not be. With tragedy, rebirth.

When I was six years old, I had a dream that a young girl was burning in a fire. The fiercer her screams became, the more my arms stuck to my sides like heavy, useless weights. No matter how much I cried and pushed, I couldn't free myself from the paralysis that exists in that kind of dream state. I watched in horror as her hair caught, her face melted, her screaming stopped. Now that I'm grown and have learned about how this very real fire has marked my life, I wonder if my great-grandfather didn't have the same dream. I wonder if he woke up gasping for air as if he had been in that smokey room, with the same ash on his pillow, crying out "I couldn't save her!" I sometimes believe that dreams must travel like stories from one generation to the next, and I will wait to see if my children will one day call out for me in pain and confusion in their sleep, as the flames swallow their friends, cousins, future brides. I hope in that moment I remember to recount to them what it was like to stand on the streets of New York with generations of people who's own lives were affected somehow 100 years before, in ways big and small, by one of the biggest events in American history... and I hope I can tell them to rest assured: we've learned so much since then.

Text by Lily Harris, great granddaughter of Max Blanck, co-owner of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, reporting from New York City for Pas Un Autre

HBO documentary Triangle: Remembering the Fire (check listings, available on HBO onDemand through April 17th, and also airing on CNN Saturday March 26, 11pm PST)

If you're in New York City tomorrow, Friday March 25th, come participate in the commemoration ceremony at Washington Place and Green Street from 11am-1pm.

Also, stop by the New York City Fire Museum from March 26th- April 23rd 2011 to see the show Remembering Their Prayers by artist and fellow Blanck relative, Susan Harris