19 March 2011

Television: 'Triangle: Remembering the Fire," March 21

A documentary on the 1911 Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire will be broadcast on HBO, 9-9.45pm (ET/PT), on Monday, March 21.

The premiere of "Triangle: Remembering the Fire," marks the 100th anniversary of the event that began the modern labor movement.

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, of Jewish and Italian descent 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 disaster at a workplace 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.
"Remembering the Fire" is inspired by Celia Gitlin, a 17-year-old Russian immigrant who perished in the fire, and was the great aunt of HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins, also 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.

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 the documentary.

The list of victims will be read in its entirety for the first time at the annual commemoration on March 25 at the site on Washington Square. In addition, the 100th anniversary of the tragedy will be marked by citywide events.
The event was the first great uprising of women - when were not allowed to vote. Organized by the newly created International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), the workers marched in the streets, stood on picket lines and were beaten by hired thugs. When many of them later appeared on the ledges of the burning Asch Building, with no chance of survival, it broke the hearts of New Yorkers who remembered their pleas.

Worst of all, the fire was preventable. Although sprinkers and fire drills existed at the time, they were not required by government regulations. As public outrage grew, the city made changes and worked with the ILGWU to improve workplace conditions and wages.

See the trailer for the documentary.

Among those interviewed for the documentary:

  • Susan Harris, granddaughter of Triangle co-owner Max Blanck, who says, “From a personal point of view, I’m happy my grandfather didn’t have to go to jail. From the victims’ and families’ point of view, if my daughter had died in the fire and he hadn’t been my grandfather, I probably would have shot him."
  • Leigh Benin, whose cousin Rosie Oringer, 19, jumped from the building. The Adelphi University labor historian says. “People forget the Triangle fire at their peril…If people want to know what deregulated industry would look like, look at the bodies on the sidewalk outside the Triangle building.” His cousin, 19-year-old Rosie Oringer, jumped from the building.
  • Suzanne Pred Bass, whose great-aunt Rosie Weiner died in the fire. Rosie’s sister Katie survived and served as a witness for the state at the subsequent manslaughter trial. She offered some of the most dramatic testimony, supporting the prosecution’s contention that the Washington Place door on the ninth floor of the factory was locked.
  • Katharine Weber, author of the critically acclaimed novel “Triangle,” whose grandmother had worked at Triangle since the Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909. She describes the working conditions, recounting her grandmother’s dramatic confrontation with police.
  • Erica Lansner, grandniece of beloved forelady Fannie Lansner, 21, credited with saving numerous lives. Fannie Lansner ushered many workers off the floor but was killed in the fire herself.
  • Ray Ott, whose grandfather, Andrew Ott, was one of the first firefighters to respond that day. Also a firefighter, Ray Ott witnessed similar horror on 9/11.
For more information, click here. There is also information at HBO, on Facebook and on Twitter.

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