After 100 Years: The Lesson to be Learned from Triangle Shirtwaist

Anniversaries serve several purposes; to remember, to honor, to get a day off, maybe even an excuse to throw a party and fire up the grill, but most of all, it is supposed to give us the opportunity to remember the sacrifices of those who created the...


Anniversaries serve several purposes; to remember, to honor, to get a day off, maybe even an excuse to throw a party and fire up the grill, but most of all, it is supposed to give us the opportunity to remember the sacrifices of those who created the anniversary and take forth lessons learned so it does not happen again. In this reactive versus proactive country of ours we all know that the majority of the anniversaries we celebrate and commemorate surround tragedy and death.

March 25, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of an event that all of us in the fire service profession need to study like a fire service history book. It is said that, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it," and we in the fire service profession are the educators of all things fire, and as any good instructor worth his salt will tell you that, "If the student failed to learn, then the instructor failed to teach." So why is it that our history is riddled with continuous tragedy resulting from the same causes that we are all too well aware of?

The fact that many of you who are reading this have no idea what occurred on this date speaks volumes of our failure in the fire service to educate ourselves and learn from the past. Thus proving, we are complacent and not progressing, we are simply existing in a stagnant state of denial and continuing to do an injustice to those who have lost their lives to fire -- those we were supposed to protect and those we should now honor.

Fire has plagued our country since its founding in Jamestown, VA, in 1607. It was a fire that nearly caused the failure of the first English settlement in the New World. Capt. John Smith, leader of the expedition who founded Jamestown, was quoted in a journal as stating something along the lines of, "if not for the idiots who misfire their rifles or burn their homes down in the night, I'd be safer in the wilderness with the Indians." It was a major fire that eventually lead to the abandonment of Jamestown and a loss of life to the initial settlers -- a fire that started, spread, and destroyed for largely the same reasons it did in 1788, 1794, 1871, 1872, and 1906 just to highlight a few. But we did eventually learn a lesson, and we did finally progress.

In those days we built out of wood, to include the chimneys to warm our homes in the cruel pre-global warming North American climates, and built those homes and buildings in close proximity to one another for protection from the savages. But it was those serious fire conflagrations that finally brought about the lessons learned that began to change all that.

The Great London Fire of 1666 began to change the way the English, of which we still were, thought about fire protection and building. For example after the Great London Fire, England began building out of brick, with proper fire separations in mind, along with an adequate water supply for fire suppression. Eureka!

This progressive mindset began to filter across the ocean to the Americas. Buildings in the Americas also began to be constructed of brick because brick does not burn. This form of building became popular and as major fires began to decline we became complacent and stopped progressing, we were simply existing in a stagnant state of denial as we developed a false sense of security in codes, as we still do today. We believed that our new building innovations were the "end all" of fire prevention.

No one at this point had given any thought to what it was we put inside those brick buildings as it relates to fire. So then just as the White Star Line bragged that their ship, the Titanic, was "unsinkable," so did Joseph Asch claim that his building, that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, was "fire proof." After all it was made of brick -- the best in fire prevention.

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