03/21/2011 09:10 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New Documentary on Triangle Fire to Air Tonight on HBO

Tonight HBO will debut an excellent documentary on the subject of the Triangle Factory fire of 1911. The tragedy ranks as the worst workplace disaster in New York State until the terrorism attacks of 9/11.

"Triangle: Remembering the Fire" brings the 1911 story to life partly by interspersing period film and photographs with narration by descendants of Triangle workers who tell the stories they heard around their family dinner tables. The documentary was produced by filmmakers Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson, partners in Blowback Productions who have produced eleven other documentaries for HBO.

This year's centennial of the fire and the deaths of 146 immigrants on March 25, 1911 is being commemorated by more than one hundred events throughout the country. The fire led to badly needed governmental reform on worker rights and fire safety. The filmmakers, as well as the many people who have joined with Remember the Triangle Coalition, feel strongly about keeping the memory alive because employers still need oversight and workers still need protection.

"It Didn't Need to Happen."
"It didn't need to happen," is the recurring theme throughout the documentary. Fire sprinklers had been invented, but they weren't installed because the owners wanted to save the money. Fire drills had never been practiced, because the drills would have taken away from productive work time for the workers. Workers tried to escape but one full factory floor filled with employees were never alerted of the danger until smoke and flames reached their floor. Those who ran for the exits couldn't escape because only one door was unlocked. During later news reports and court testimony, numerous people said that the other exits were routinely locked. By controlling the exits, the owners could prevent pilfering as well as workers sneaking out before the end of the day.

For many years the workers were aware of the injustices and had recently acted to try to prevent this type of tragedy. In 1909 garment workers throughout the city had gone out on strike for better work conditions and higher pay. Employers of some of the smaller shops had agreed to union demands from the newly formed International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Ironically, the Triangle Waist Company--one of the biggest factories in the city--had enough power that they did not have to make any deals. Eventually, without union protection or any concessions to their demands, the immigrant women had come back to work simply because they had no choice.

The documentary clearly explains the chaos of that late afternoon. The fire began on Saturday at about 4:40, about 20 minutes before the workers would have left for the evening. The machines were so tightly packed on each production floor that when the workers saw that there was a fire, they had trouble making their way to an exit. Some got to the unlocked door; others found the other exit locked, and when they ran to the window to use the fire escape, they saw that the metal ladder had become twisted and unusable from the heat. The number of people the elevators could take each trip was very limited, even though the operators were pulling on more women than would have been legally allowed.

The most vivid images of that day are described by the great-great grandson of Joseph Zito, one of the elevator operators for the Triangle building. Dennis Clancey describes Zito's efforts to take as many women as possible on to the elevator each time he returned to one of the burning floors. Clancey describes his relative's horror at having to leave some of the women behind, with his elevator over capacity, and with the flames coming nearer and nearer. Ultimately the women become so panicked that they tore away the elevator gates on the floor landing and tried to ride to safety on the top of the elevator carriage. The weight was too much for the cables to bear, and the elevator crashed to the lowest floor, unable to rise again.

The fire department arrived just two minutes after the alarm had sounded, but here, too, there was no relief. The ladders that might have let garment workers climb out to safety reached only to the sixth floor and the water from the hoses barely reached the 7th floor.

Eighteen minutes after the fire had started, the work space had been destroyed and 129 women and 17 men had either been killed by the fire or jumped to their deaths from the windows of the 8th and 9th floors.

Though the owners were found not guilty when brought to trial, the public outrage increased and politicians--including those in Tammany Hall--finally realized that they needed to work with the fledgling ILGWU to enact legislation to improve safety conditions and wages for garment workers. (The American Society of Safety Engineers also grew out of this tragedy, and they, too, are commemorating their centennial year.) Many of the changes that grew out of 1911 still serve as the foundation of today's labor standards.

So is this just an interesting bit of history we might want to remember? The filmmakers don't think so, nor do any of the several hundred people who have put together events connected with the Remember the Triangle Coalition.

People Forget at Their Peril
In the HBO documentary Leigh Benin, a labor historian at Adelphi University in New York, perhaps says it best: "People forget the Triangle fire at their peril. If people want to know what deregulated industry would like, look at the [photos of the] bodies on the sidewalk outside the Triangle building."

If companies can cut corners they will; if we lighten up on regulation and outside review, it's only a matter of time until there is a 21st century Triangle. American workers deserve better than that.

Whether it's the men who were on the BP oil rig when it blew, the people affected by the West Virginia mining explosion in 2010, or whether it's an isolated incident at a factory or a construction site, "People forget the Triangle fire at their peril."

HBO will be airing the documentary several times over the next couple of weeks. Check the website for details.

March is Women's History Month, and I am continuing to highlight outstanding women in my "30 Under 30" feature on my website. Check the site daily, or sign up to receive the "woman of the day" by e-mail: Today read about Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to hold an international pilot's license.