The variety of ways in which the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is being commemorated reflects the lasting impact the horrific event has had on the public consciousness.

The fire, which occurred in New York City on March 25, 1911, claimed the lives of 146 people who worked in the factory. Many suffocated or were burned to death, but some who fought their way to windows ended up jumping to their deaths to escape the blaze, while people in the streets below watched in horror, unable to help. One contemporary newspaper article contains an account of five girls waiting by a window while a fire ladder was extended upward toward them. When the ladder turned out to be two stories too short to reach them, they held hands and jumped together, their hair and dresses on fire.

The catastrophe provoked grief, outrage – and change, in the form of new worker safety laws, workers compensation and an industry dedicated to occupational safety.

In New York, a city forever marked by the tragedy, bagpipe music will open a program featuring speeches by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) President-Elect, Terrie S. Norris and a former NY City Fire Marshall.

In Chicago, a commemorative event at Roosevelt University will include readings from “The Triangle Fire: a Brief History with Documents” by history professor Jo Ann Argersinger, and from “Walking Through a River of Fire,” an anthology of poems about the incident. There will also be a screening of the American Experience documentary, “Triangle Fire,” and a performance of a new play, “The Ninth Floor Door,” followed by a panel discussion about workplace safety.

Triangle fire jarred the country into meaningful action

Online options make it easy learn about the tragedy and the changes that came about in its wake. The ASSE documentary, “American Society of Safety Engineers – Celebrating 100 years of Safety” may be viewed at: www.asse.org/ASSECenturyofSafety. The film recounts the fire that inspired the ASSE’s founding – using grim photographs of the event and its aftermath – and goes on to trace the development of the occupational safety, health and environmental profession in the decades that followed. The movie notes that although there were many work-related deaths prior to that day, “it took the Triangle fire to jar the country into meaningful action.”

The cover story of the March/April 2011 issue of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Journal, “The Triangle Fire, 100 Years Later,” takes a look at what has changed, and what has not changed in the intervening century. The tragedy prompted the NFPA to create the Committee on Life Safety, which developed a fire safety code to address building exits. That code was the precursor to today’s widely-used Life Safety Code. The Journal is available only to NFPA members, but in a video on the association’s website, NFPA Division Manager Robert Solomon examines why the conditions that led to the Triangle Waist fire continue to play a role in other industrial fires throughout the world. It can be viewed at: www.nfpa.org.

Cornell University has launched an entire website dedicated to the fire. ”Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire” is a comprehensive and informative online collection that contains everything from details about the victims to a model of the 9th floor and a list of the hazards that existed at the time of the fire (locked doors, rusty fire escapes that collapsed, exits crowded with boxes, flammable barrels of oil). An interesting note: a NY Times article dated March 26, the day after the fire, said that the fireproof building showed hardly any signs of the disaster that had occurred a day earlier.