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The Triangle Shirt Waist Fire Of 1911--The Darkest Hour Before the Dawn Of Workers' Compensation In America
By Lonce LaMon - May 9, 2011

Onlookers down on the street observed a young man standing at the window of the 9th floor, taking women by the hand and helping them onto the window sill. Some observers believed they saw bundles of fabric being tossed out the windows, and thought to themselves that the owners of the Triangle Waist Factory were trying to save their inventory from the fire.
But when the bundles of fabric reached the pavement and pairs of legs were seen protruding out from the cloth, the reality seeped in.  They were jumping.  The women were jumping. 
Imagine a young man of his day on March 25th 1911, living and developing in his culture in early 20th Century America, in downtown Manhattan New York.  He would have been raised and groomed as a gentleman.  He would walk ahead of ladies and open the door to any establishment, allowing the women to enter ahead of him while he held the door ajar.  He would lift ladies across puddles on rainy days so they wouldn’t get their skirts wet.  He would drive the horse drawn carriages and defer to the ladies to be his passengers. 
Now imagine him as an employee of the Triangle Waist Factory.  It is Saturday, March 25th 1911 near the close of the work day at around 4:40 pm.  Suddenly, a fire breaks out.  It starts on the 8th floor and burns through 3 floors all the way to the roof which is at the top of the 10th floor, in less than 18 minutes.  There are just over 300 people, mostly women, packed into the 9th floor loft with 300 sewing machines.  Panic breaks out.  There is no plan for escape.  There have been no fire drills.  Nobody knows what to do.  One of the doors, the Washington Square Place exit, is found to be locked.  The owners locked it because they didn’t want the mostly women workers leaving through that exit. They wanted them exiting at the Green Street exit stairwell so they could check their hand bags at each work day’s end at the street exit to make sure they were not carrying out stolen fabrics.
The young gentleman sees the inevitable.  His only escape is the window.  Many of the women see that same last option.  So, the gentleman stands at the window and allows the ladies to go first.  He assists them in stepping up onto the window sill.  One after another.  Some women clutch their purses as they jump.  Some hug each other.  Some hold hands.  Some of the ladies who hugged one another were found on the street melted together.  The young man jumps last. 
The image of this gentleman reminds me of an experience I had with a friend during my early adult life.  I discovered her to be a liar, a thief, and a manipulator in life, and then when she faced an early death from cancer, I imagined somehow that her imminent death was going to change her.  Thus, in spite of her transgressions against me, I stepped forth to comfort her in her final illness.  But once again, she robbed me, lied to me and manipulated me.  Why did I expect otherwise?
Facing death doesn’t change us.  Many people may disagree with me.  But I am going by my own experience.  That gentleman who lifted those women up onto the window sill so they could jump ahead of him was the perfect gentleman in life and remained the perfect gentleman to the very instant of his death.  I am so touched by this image that I see it as a film clip in my own imagination over and over again.  I can forever see that gentleman at that 8th floor window.  One journalist writing for the newspaper the next day wrote, “A man stood at the window helping the women up onto the window sill as if helping them onto a street car rather than into Eternity.” 
90 people jumped to their deaths in the Triangle Waist Factory fire in Manhattan New York in 1911.   Exactly 146 people-129 women and 17 men- died.  There were about 500 people working at Triangle that day on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch building in downtown Manhattan that Spring day. 
Today, we have just turned the corner of the 100th anniversary of that monumental, historic fire.  Much was inspired and a whole universe was borne out of this jaw dropping event.  This tragedy created a political explosion that brought to life the workers compensation system, safety laws, minimum wage laws, work week limitations, building codes, fire standards, unions, and other worker related laws, codes, and standards that shape our lives today. 
1911 was the year that most states in the United States, including California, set up their workers’ compensation systems.  California’s quasi-state agency, State Compensation Insurance Fund, was started in 1911. Wisconsin, as the very first state in the nation to start workers’ compensation, just celebrated its one hundred year anniversary on May 3rd 2011, last Tuesday.   Wisconsin began workers’ compensation just a little over five weeks after the Manhattan Triangle fire.  See the related short article:
Thus, stay tuned for the continuance of this ongoing Feature series of articles about the Triangle Waist Fire or as also expressed, the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire.   What is a shirt waist?  Some younger people alive today may ask this question.  A shirt waist?  Nobody today speaks of shirt waists.   But my grandmother did.   So, stay tuned as I tell you the story…    

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