By Joe Anuta
The elements have eroded many of the names on a marble statue in Maspeth dedicated to the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. But 100 years later, the memory of the event has not faded in Queens, where the centennial of the devastating accident held special significance for union members and artists alike.
The Queens Jewish Historical Society hosted an event at Mt. Zion Cemetery, where the memorial stands.
The structure looks like the wall of an ancient Greek building. It is comprised of a row of white marble columns with a gabled top and was built by the United Garment Workers Union for 15 victims of the fire who could not afford their own burial and are interred at the site, according to Jeff Gottlieb, president of the society.
For some, the memorial was a reminder of the successive union victories for workplace rights that followed the fire. Dermot Smyth, of the United Federation of Teachers, was invited by the society to draw a connection between the death of the 146 men and women who died in the fire and the current battle between unions and the state and city government.
“One hundred years ago when this tragedy happened, it was the catalyst for amazing reforms. The labor movement wasn’t a bad thing, it was about protecting the workers and their families” Smyth told the small crowd of community members and sixth-grade students from PS 229, who filed between headstones in the tightly packed graveyard.
“Now we have a mayor that has tried … to get a message across that unions are a bad thing,” Smyth said. “We have a mayor that is assailing the unions.”
But others who participated in the ceremony were less political. Several sixth-graders presented a research project the entire class had compiled about the tragedy.
After running through a chronological account of the accident — beginning when the fire broke out at around 4:40 p.m. inside the Asch Building on Washington Place at Greene Street in Manhattan and spread to the eighth, ninth and 10th floors — three of the students read first-hand accounts from survivors of the fire.
“All the machines were bubbling with flames,” said Madalyn Carusone, reading from an interview with Anna Piddone, who worked on the ninth floor of the factory. “I ran to the windows and to the elevator … I went back to the window and made the sign of the cross, but I didn’t have the courage.”
Many women on the eighth floor did have the courage, however, and knowingly leapt to their deaths to avoid the inferno that raged inside.
Three of the women who perished in the fire were relatives of former state Sen. Serphin Maltese, who hosted another ceremony at Christ the King High School later in the evening.
Correlations to current events were largely absent from the event, where amid numerous speeches and award presentations several artists displayed and performed work inspired by the accident.
Pianist Jim Kuemmerle traveled all the way from Seattle to perform several compositions he wrote about the fire as well as “Every Little Movement,” a popular song of the time that one of the women was singing when the fire broke out.
Kuemmerle also performed his original piece “Our Work Is Never Done,” and referred another garment factory fire that killed about 20 people in Bangladesh in December.
Maltese’s wife Constance unveiled a new portrait she painted of Maltese’s aunts Lucia and Rosarea, both teenagers when they died in the fire. In the background of the painting, Maltese’s grandmother Caterina, who also perished in the fire, can be seen huddled over a sewing machine.
The Christ the King Concert Chorus also performed several times throughout the evening.
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.