The Triangle Fire Memorial Association commemorated the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire with a memorial at the Constance Del Vecchio Maltese Art Center at Christ the King High School on March 25.
Of the 500 garment workers, 146 workers — including 123 mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women and girls — died in the inferno. The factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was located on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors of the Asch Building, at 23–29 Washington Pl. The doors to the stairways and exits were locked — back then, a common practice to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks. But it was a death sentence for the workers who were unable to escape the deadly flames and who either jumped to their death or perished in the fire.
According to court testimony, a cigarette, carelessly thrown into a fabric scrap bin, ignited the fire. Water buckets, commonly used for extinguishing fires in garment factories, were empty.
Three of the victims were state Senator Serphin Maltese’s grandmother Caterina and his two aunts, Lucia and 14-year-old Rosarea, one of the youngest victims. His late wife, painter Constance Del Vecchio Maltese, memorialized the women in a painting whose death certificates list them as “charred.”
Maltese explained that he founded the group with his brother Vinny and family members of the other victims in the early 1950s. Every year, the association holds a memorial for those who died, trying to ensure that the same thing never happens again.
“Unfortunately, in third-world countries, and even here in the United States too often, similar occurrences have taken place. And we should do all in power, not only to remember the victims but to make sure that the same tragedy never occurs again,” the former senator said.
This year’s memorial was held via Facebook live and Zoom because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Maltese, who also serves as the chairman of the Triangle Fire Memorial Association, expressed his gratitude to the volunteers of the association and the staff of Christ the King High School for putting the ceremony together despite the pandemic.
Michael Ouellette, a social studies and science teacher at Christ the King High School, confessed that he knew little about one of the deadliest fires in the United States before he began teaching at the high school. However, as he began to understand the unique link between Christ the King, Maltese and the Triangle Fire Memorial Association, he said it was essential to pay attention to the event every March 25 and teach his students about the deadly inferno.
“The idea that doors, stairwells and exits were blocked preventing many, many workers from escaping and causing them to jump from high windows gives us pause to wonder and question the concern, or lack thereof, of the company’s owners Max Planck and Isaac Harris, immigrants themselves, for their fellow immigrant worker employees, who toiled six days a week, 52 hours a week for perhaps a couple of dollars an hour by today’s wages,” Ouellette said.
He described that the main stairway, which allowed some to escape, soon became unusable and that employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape. It collapsed, and victims fell 100 feet to their death. Even though the fire department arrived relatively quickly, firefighters could not stop the flames since their ladders only reached up to the seventh floor.
“We will be vigilant, seeking out opportunities to foster the safety and health and the hopes and dreams of workers and laborers, and especially present and future immigrant populations. For I’m sure there are few in this room, who can claim to have not come from ancestors who came to America to pursue the American dream,” Ouellette underlined.
Other honorees included Jason Green, fire chief of the DeWitt Fire district; Holly Maltese, the niece of Senator Maltese and great-niece of Lucia and Rosarea Maltese who is an elementary school teacher who teaches the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire; Robin Berson, a board member of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition; James McGill, a descendant of Catarina, Lucia and Rosaria Maltese; and Nechemia Aaron Oberstein, a retired New York City ESL teacher.
The fire sparked a movement for stronger workplace safety regulations in NY state and the modernization of labor laws.