An unforgettable description of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 garment workers 100 years ago today, mostly young women, ran in the New York Times Magazine’s “The Lives They Lived” issue on December 30, 2001. Three months after 9/11, the essay by Elizabeth McCracken memorialized Rose Freedman, the last survivor of the fire, who died at 107 earlier in the year.
Surely some of the early jumpers believed they were saving themselves: they flung their bodies into blankets and jackets held taut by strangers, into fire safety nets once the fire department arrived, which ripped in half and flung their contents to the ground. Some women died trying to leap into the arms of firemen, who stood at the tops of ladders that, fully extended, reached only to the sixth floor.
People on the ground begged women not to jump. They begged as one woman waved a white handkerchief and then leapt; her flaming dress caught on a wire and she hung there till she burned free. They begged as a man helped a series of women off the ledge with courtesy, as if the air itself was an elevator car, before he kissed the last, let her fall and followed.
I do not want to die in a fire. I do not want to die so far from the earth. I am dying, and I believe I can fly.
Perhaps these women realized they could not save their lives. They knew that those who stayed inside the building would be incinerated beyond recognition. They may have thought that it would be a comfort to their families to have something to identify and then bury.
This tragedy contributed significantly to the public’s health. It was after this fire that exit doors in the vast majority of public and work spaces were required to open by pushing, rather than pulling. The women who died piled up against the door that was actually illegally locked, but even if it wasn’t locked, the door had to be pulled open rather than pushed out.