Sunday, December 03, 2006

It was as if I were there

It was a vision from the bowels of hell.
A fast-moving wall of fire raced through the building's upper floors, incinerating everyone and everything in its path.
Screaming workers trying to flee found that the elevator was knocked out.
Smoke and flames filled the stairway.
Exit doors had been chained shut for security reasons.
Workers kicked out windows and jumped to their deaths on the street below rather than be burnt alive.
A scene from the Sept. 11 attack on the Twin Towers?

The former Asch Building, home of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. in 1911

It was March 25, 1911.
A fire of undetermined origin broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory, which occupied the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building on Washington Place, just east of Washington Square in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.
By the time the fire was put out, 146 garment workers -- girls and young women mostly of Eastern European origin -- had perished.
It had no parallel in New York City until the terrorist attacks of 90 years later.

Engine Company 33, just blocks from the scene, was among the New York Fire Department units that rushed to the blaze. But their ladders weren't long enough to reach the workers trapped on the ninth floor.

My living link to this tragedy was my maternal grandmother, who was 15 at the time. Like all New Yorkers who were alive then and old enough to realize what had happened, it was forever etched in her memory. Twenty-five years ago, I interviewed her on audiocasette about her memories of the fire for a college history course.
So many young girls were killed that day, she recalled.
I still have the tape.

The building was repaired after the fire and was eventually donated by its owner to New York University, whose campus surrounds it. Now called the Brown Building after the former owner, it houses research labs.

After the fire
(courtesy of Wikipedia)

Except for the bronze historical markers affixed to the side of the building, you would never know what happened there.
Most people are unaware of the horror that occurred nearly 96 years ago.
On Saturday I tried to get up to the eighth floor, where the fire started, and the ninth floor, where the workers were trapped.
The security guard was adamant: No entry without ID.

But looking up at the ninth floor from the sidewalk, it was easy for my mind's eye to reconstruct the scene. I heard the screams of the women, heard the thud of their bodies smacking onto the pavement. I smelled the burning textiles and burning flesh. I knew what it was like for bystanders on that early spring day to gaze up at the unfolding disaster powerless to do something, anything, about it.

Before walking away, I asked a student if he was familiar with the building's history. I explained that a long time ago, there was a big industrial fire.
"Oh," he said. "Was anyone hurt?"

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