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Triangle Shirtwaist fire: Why it inspires plays and poetry readings 100 years later

A defining moment of labor history, the deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York remains a powerful touchstone even after 100 years.

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Susanjoy Checksfield (c.), a founding member of the Triangle Fire Coalition, joins marchers at a rally to remember the 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, during its 100th anniversary commemoration on March 25 in New York.

Bebeto Matthews / AP

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One hundred years ago today, at 4:45 p.m., a fire ignited in a scrap basket inside New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Within 28 minutes, the factory burned down and 146 workers died, mostly young immigrant women or children. Some fell to their deaths leaping from windows, others perished falling down empty elevator shafts. The majority were trapped inside the main work floor because the exit doors were locked by management – supposedly to prevent theft.

This tragedy gave human face to a vigorous labor movement, and nearly a dozen workplace-safety laws were passed in the immediate wake of the disaster. It was the worst workplace disaster in the nation until 9/11, but cultural observers say the incident has penetrated the national consciousness in ways that go beyond safety regulations and labor organizing.

A century later, those events have been commemorated from Los Angeles to Vermont, in more than 100 literary works ranging from poetry to plays, documentaries, and an opera.

The fire was an important shot across the bow in the nation’s developing historical consciousness, says playwright and historian Daniel Czitrom, a Mount Holyoke College professor whose play “Triangle,” co-authored with Jack Gilhooley, opens in New York City in two weeks. “It marks the real start of the 20th century understanding of the role that government can have in our public life,” says Professor Czitrom, improving workplace safety and conditions for a largely invisible immigrant class.

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