‘Triangle’ explains the fire that killed 146 and changed labor laws
Ultimately, they had no choice except for how they would perish: burn or leap to death.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers were trapped on March 25, 1911. HBO’s excellent “Triangle: Remembering the Fire” marks the centennial with a 40-minute documentary Monday.
This tragedy, New York’s worst workplace disaster until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was the catalyst for changing labor laws and establishing fire safety standards.
“There were no fire escapes,” says Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films and the movie’s executive producer. “No one had sprinklers. It was all new. They always put a stop sign up after someone gets killed on the corner. We always learn too late, and we learn for the next generation.”
Nevins is not only the force behind the film, but her grandmother’s youngest sister, Celia Gitlin, was among the 146 who died in the fire. Most were immigrant women and teenage girls.
Nevins hadn’t realized the familial connection until HBO’s documentary, “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags.” Filmmakers Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson made both documentaries.
Though other victims’ descendants are in the film, Nevins is not among them. In an interview, she talks about her great-aunt. Like so many who died that Saturday afternoon, Gitlin, 17, was a recent emigre. In the United States for six months, she spoke no English, and her death certificate states that she died of a broken skull; she jumped from the blazing building.
“It wasn’t just so I must remember my family,” Nevins says. “These women really changed history. Women had led the labor movement.”
Susan Harris’ grandfather was factory co-owner Max Blanck, who died six years before she was born. Harris has clearly ruminated about the tragedy and is emotionally open during an interview.
“There needs to be some type of government protection, some oversight that will come in and inspect (factories),” Harris says,