On March 25, 1911, a catastrophic fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City. Trapped inside the upper floors of a ten-story building, 146 workers – mostly young immigrant women and teenage girls – were burned alive or forced to jump to their deaths to escape an inferno that consumed the factory in just 18 minutes. It was the worst workplace disaster in New York State until 9/11.
The tragedy changed the course of history, paving the way for government to represent working people, not just business, for the first time, and helped an emerging American middle class to live the American Dream.
The HBO documentary Triangle: Remebering the Fire tells an historic story that is still relevant today. Emmy®-winning filmmakers Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson (the 2009 HBO documentary “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags” and 1999’s “Thug Life in D.C.”) bring the victims’ stories to life through never-before-seen photographs and heartfelt accounts by descendants of those who were there that day. While people have seen the horrendous images of burnt corpses on the street outside the building, this film gives them back their humanity.
The people of New York City already knew these girls from 1909’s Uprising of the 20,000, when shirtwaist workers, most of them recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, went on strike demanding higher pay, shorter hours and better conditions. An event in American history missing from most textbooks, it was the first great uprising of women – at a time when they didn’t have the vote.
Organized by the newly created International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), the workers had marched in the streets, stood on picket lines and been beaten by hired thugs. When many of them later appeared on the ledges of the burning Asch Building, without any chance of survival, it broke the hearts of New Yorkers who remembered their pleas.
Worst of all, the fire was preventable. Safety precautions such as sprinklers and fire drills existed at the time, but were not required by government regulations, which would have cost businesses money.
Triangle: Remebering the Fire is inspired by Celia Gitlin, a 17-year-old Russian immigrant who perished in the fire, and was the great aunt of Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films and the film’s executive producer. Nevins had long suspected that her grandmother’s younger sister died in the fire. While filming “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags,” the producers located Gitlin’s death certificate and confirmed the fact.
As public outrage grew after the fire, the city responded quickly to demands for change in the workplace and Tammany Hall officials worked with the fledgling ILGWU to enact legislation improving safety, conditions and wages for garment workers, serving as the foundation of today’s labor standards.
An HBO On Demand exclusive, “Triangle: The Unidentified,” tells the story of the last remaining victims to be acknowledged. Of the 146 victims, six were burned beyond recognition. Their identities were lost to history until co-producer and historian Michael Hirsch used genealogical investigative techniques to reveal their identities. For the first time, and as a result of Hirsch’s research, the full list of the victims’ names is revealed in “Triangle: The Unidentified.”
Each year the tragedy is commemorated, and on March 25, 2011, the 100th anniversary will be marked by citywide events.
Partners in Blowback Productions, Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson have made 11 previous documentaries for HBO, including “Mob Stories,” “Prisoners of the War on Drugs,” “Execution Machine: Texas Death Row,” “Soldiers in the Army of God,” “Gladiator Days: Anatomy of a Prison Murder,” “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags,” “Thug Life in D.C.,” which won the 1999 Emmy® for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special, and “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock,” which won the 1994 CableACE Award for Best Documentary Special. Levin’s 1998 feature film “Slam” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
Triangle: Remebering the Fire was directed by Daphne Pinkerson; produced by Daphne Pinkerson and Marc Levin; written by Michael Hirsch, Richard Lowe and Daphne Pinkerson; scenes from “The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal” directed by Mel Stuart. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.