Apr. 18, 2006

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

by Robert Phillips

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Poem: "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire" by Robert Phillips from Circumstances Beyond Our Control: Poems. © Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

I, Rose Rosenfeld, am one of the workers
who survived. Before the inferno broke out,
factory doors had been locked by the owners,

       to keep us at our sewing machines,
       to keep us from stealing scraps of cloth.
       I said to myself, What are the bosses doing?
       I knew they would save themselves.

I left my big-button-attacher machine,
climbed the iron stairs to the tenth floor
where their offices were. From the landing window

       I saw girls in shirtwaists flying by,
       Catherine wheels projected like Zeppelins
       out open windows, then plunging downward,
       sighing skirts open parasols on fire.

I found the big shots stuffing themselves
into the freight elevator going to the roof.
I squeezed in. While our girls were falling,

       we ascended like ashes. Firemen
       yanked us onto the next-door roof.
       I sank to the tarpaper, sobbed for
       one-hundred forty-six comrades dying

or dead down below. One was Rebecca,
my only close friend, a forewoman kind to workers.
Like the others, she burned like a prism.

       Relatives of twenty-three victims later
            Brought suits.
       Each family was awarded seventy-five dollars.
       It was like the Titanic the very next year-
       No one cared about the souls in steerage.

Those doors were locked, too, a sweatshop at sea.
They died due to ice, not fire. I live in
Southern California now. But I still see

       skirts rippling like parachutes,
       girls hit the cobblestones, smell smoke,
       burnt flesh, girls cracking like cheap buttons,
       disappearing like so many dropped stitches.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of lawyer and writer Clarence (Seward) Darrow, (books by this author) born in Kinsman, Ohio (1857). Darrow became famous for defending some of the most unpopular people of his time. In the 1925 Monkey Trial, he defended high school teacher John Scopes for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in a Tennessee school. In "The Crime of the Century," in 1924, he successfully defended two confessed teenage murderers, Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, from receiving the death penalty.

He wrote the novel An Eye for an Eye (1905), and the nonfiction books Crime: Its Cause and Treatment (1922), The Prohibition Mania (1927), and The Story of My Life (1932).

He once said: "I never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with a lot of pleasure."

On this day in 1906 an earthquake struck San Francisco. It was one of the worst natural disasters in American history. At the time, San Francisco had a population of about 450,000 people and was the busiest port on the Pacific coast of the United States. Business had been booming, and new office buildings, factories, mansions and hotels had been constructed all over the city.

The earthquake began near dawn, at 5:12 AM on a Wednesday morning, and lasted for a little over a minute. Scientists later determined that the San Andreas Fault had moved about twenty-three feet. The quake measured 8.3 on the Richter scale, and it was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and as far east as central Nevada. The epicenter was near San Francisco.

A San Francisco journalist named James Hopper said, "The earthquake started ... with a direct violence that left one breathless. ... There was something personal about the attack; it seemed to have a certain vicious intent. My building quivered with a vertical and rotary motion and there was a sound as of a snarl. ... My head on the pillow, I watched my stretched and stiffened body ... springing up and down and from side to side like a pancake in the tossing griddle of an experienced French chef."

A policeman said, "[The streets] began to dance and rear and roll in waves like a rough sea in a squall, [then] sank in places and vomited up car tracks and the tunnels that carried the cable. These lifted themselves out of the pavement, and bent and snapped."

The world-famous tenor Enrico Caruso had performed at San Francisco's Grand Opera House the night before, and he woke up in his bed as the Palace Hotel was falling down around him. He stumbled out into the street, and because he was terrified that that shock might have ruined his voice, he began singing.

There was a loud sound of an explosion as the city gas plant blew up. Wooden structures caught fire from overturned stoves and immediately began to burn. The fire department went out to fight the fires, only to find that the city had lost all of its running water. Firemen attempted to stop the spread of fire by dynamiting whole city blocks, but despite their efforts the fire raged for three days and most of the city burned to the ground.

More than 500 city blocks and more than 28,000 buildings were in ruins. Some 250,000 people were left homeless. Nearly 3,000 people died. Americans mourned the loss of San Francisco, one of the country's greatest cities. The journalist Will Irwin wrote in the New York Sun, "The old San Francisco is dead. The gayest, lightest-hearted, most pleasure-loving city of this continent, and in many ways the most interesting and romantic, is a horde of huddled refugees living among ruins. ... San Francisco is the city that was."

But people immediately began rebuilding the city. In three years, about 20,000 new buildings went up.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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