Rose Rosenfeld was just 17 years old. Born in a small town near Vienna, she had emigrated with her family to the United States in 1909 and settled in New York. She found work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company who ran a factory in the top three floors of the 10-story building at 23-29 Washington Place near Washington Square Park. The company made women’s blouses, then called “shirtwaists” and employed about 500 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women like Rose. They worked nine hours a day on weekdays and seven hours on Saturdays and were paid $7 to $12 a week, the equivalent of $191 to $327 a week today.
March 25, 1911 was a Saturday. At about 4:45 PM just as the workday was ending, a basket of cloth scraps in a bin under one of the cutter’s tables caught fire, possibly from a discarded cigarette. Within minutes, Rose’s life changed as a blaze spread up and across the three top floors. The owners of the factory had kept the doors locked to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks or taking scraps of cloth with them when they left. It also served to keep out union organizers who were seeking to organize the garment trades.
But it also prevented the workers from escaping the rapidly spreading fire. The ensuing scene was probably one of the most horrific episodes in the history of New York. Firefighters arriving could not get at the blaze since their ladders were too short. People gathered in the street below watched in shock as the young women, to escape being burned to death, leaped from the windows, their billowing skirts aflame, to their deaths on the pavement below.
When it was over, 146 garment workers, 123 women and 23 men were dead. Rose escaped by somehow being able to make it up to the 10th floor where the company’s executives were and then following them to the roof where people on the roof of an adjoining building were able to pull them to safety.
Much has been written about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire over the years. There have been scores of books, films, historic commemorations and other events in memory of the terrible tragedy and its victims. In its aftermath, numerous laws were passed to safeguard workers from a repeat of the horror. It also led to the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union as workers sought to protect themselves on jobs like this.
Rose Rosenfeld later married a man named Harry Freedman and became a lifelong supporter of unions and a crusader for worker safety, constantly re-telling her story that 146 workers died horrible deaths because owners were not concerned with their safety. She died in 2001 at the age of 107.