Memory  /  First Person

A Memorial Restores Humanity To The 146 Ghosts of the Triangle Fire

Over a century after one of New York City’s deadliest industrial accidents, the names of its victims, most of them women, are being enshrined in steel.

The challenge when writing history is to break the glass that separates us from the past. To connect somehow with those who lived before us and turn them back into people — not flat abstractions in funny clothes.

The glass-breaking moment for me, when I set out long ago to write a history of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire — the 1911 industrial disaster that shaped the politics of New York and later the entire nation — came when I learned that some of the victims, moments from death yet cheerfully unawares, were singing at the end of their workday. “Every Little Movement,” a hit Broadway show tune, was their equivalent of the latest from Taylor Swift. Some joke or passing remark or reference to a boyfriend had reminded one of them of the lyrics, and when she launched in, others joined her, as happy humans often do.

They were flesh and blood, as real as you and I. And then they were gone — incinerated in their ninth-floor death trap or smashed on the Greenwich Village pavement where they plunged. No publication even bothered to record all their names.

Now, New Yorkers and visitors to the city will be able to have their own glass-breaking moments at the site of the historic fire, which was the deadliest workplace disaster in city history until the day known as 9/11. The Triangle Fire Memorial, a project years in the making, will be dedicated on Wednesday at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street near Washington Square in the heart of Manhattan.

The 146 fire victims — most of them immigrant women from Italy and Eastern Europe — will be restored as actual names of actual people, at the very spot where they passed into history. Their names are cut into the flowing steel of the monument, which — when all the pieces are installed this winter — will stretch like ribbon to ninth-floor windows, then tumble back toward street level, where it will spread its arms to embrace the building where history happened. Light shining through the incised names will reflect on a polished surface, where they will appear as if glowing.