This year’s commemorations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire will be modest compared to the events marking its centennial in 2011, which included prayer services, marches in period costume and specially commissioned performances. But one group has decided to remember the workplace disaster, a 20-minute blaze that killed 146 workers, not only this year, but into the foreseeable future.
About 30 students and professors from the Fashion Institute of Technology gathered on the morning of March 21 to chalk the victims’ names onto the sidewalk on the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 27th Street. They aim to preserve the memory of the workers, mostly female Jewish and Italian immigrants, who died in the fire.
But at a time when Chinese workers have committed suicide in despair at factories that make widgets for such companies as Apple and Nintendo, the FIT group also wants to raise awareness of the persistence of harsh and unsafe working conditions.
“Students at FIT mostly know about the Triangle Fire already,” said Daniel Levinson Wilk, a professor of American history there who covers the fire in his class. “It’s an important event in one of the industries that we’re sending people into. There was danger back then and there continues to be danger today, especially overseas.”
Wilk, his colleagues and students did the same thing last year, when theirs was one among many to memorialize the fire and to acknowledge the significance of the worker-protection legislation it inspired. The FIT group was originally inspired by Ruth Sergel’s “Chalk” project, in which volunteers write the names and ages of the Triangle Fire’s victims in front of their former homes.
This year’s action is also a commitment to carry the commemoration forward and work for change, Wilk said.
Both he and some of his students are involved in “Save the Garment Center,” which is working to bring apparel manufacturing back to New York, in part to more easily monitor the working conditions.
“There’s a lot of awareness, but there’s frustration,” he said. “This event is also about trying to make people motivated to make the world a better place.”