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Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: Labor Tragedy Still Haunts City A Century Later

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A century after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the city's worst workplace disaster until the September 11th terrorist attacks, NY1 is taking a week-long look back at the tragedy. NY1's Cheryl Wills filed the following report on why New Yorkers are compelled to remember the occasion 100 years later.

Earlier this month, students at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. read the names of those who perished in a Greenwich Village factory fire 100 years ago this week.

The disaster at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory sparked public outrage and redefined the city's building codes, labor laws and even politics itself.

On March 25, 1911, a small fire broke out in a bin of clothing on the eighth floor of a building that was packed with mostly women, Jewish and Italian immigrant garment workers.

"They crowded as many sewing machines operators as possible into those floors," said Leigh Benin, a relative of victim of the fire. "There were 10,000-square-feet floors but they were packed with people and machines."

As the flames quickly spread, women realized that the 10-year-old modern building was a complete deathtrap, because doors were either locked or opened inward.

"There were just way too many people in there, not enough exits," said Benin.

Even the poorly constructed fire escape was useless to the desperate women.

"It collapsed throwing people into the air shaft nine stories down," said Benin.

The fire department was on the scene within two minutes, but the ladder only reached to the sixth floor, some 30 feet below where most victims were perched on window ledges - with flames at their backs.

When the smoke finally cleared, 146 people were dead, including 129 women and girls.

Newspaper editorials blasted politicians, landlords and a host of others who were deemed responsible for the tragedy.

Even a century later, relatives of some victims say it's important to remember the lessons learned from the tragedy.

"When you see what's happening to this nation, we have to really be grateful for the formation of unions," said Susan Zucker-Scharff, a descendant of a fire victim.

NY1 anchor Roma Torre had a grandmother, Rose Meli, who was working inside the factory at the time and managed to survive the catastrophe. Torre recently moderated a panel called "Remembering The Triangle Factory Fire" at Adelphi University.

In a moving performance at the same event, college students remembered the young immigrant women who perished. Those new Americans who were so full of hope and opportunity could have never imagined that their lives would end so tragically, but at the same time affect so much social change.

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