‘Tri­an­gle’ ex­plains the fire that killed 146 and changed la­bor laws

TV Week - - TV Q&A - BY JAC­QUE­LINE CUT­LER

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,

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