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The Bangladeshi Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

When I first read about the horrendous fire in Bangladesh, I immediately thought of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911 — more than 100 years ago. In many ways, nothing has changed. In some ways, some things have changed.

Today:

A Bangladeshi garment factory that was producing clothes for Wal-Mart, Disney,  and other major Western companies had lost its fire safety certification in June, five months before a blaze in the facility killed 112 workers, a fire official told the Associated Press.

Separately, the owner of the Tazreen factory told AP that he had only received permission to build a three-story facility but had expanded it illegally to eight stories and was adding a ninth at the time of the blaze…

The factory didn’t have any fire exits for its 1,400 workers, many of whom became trapped by the blaze. Investigators have said the death toll would have been far lower if there had been even a single emergency exit. Fire extinguishers in the building were left unused, either because they didn’t work or workers didn’t know how to use them.

100 years ago:

Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.

The Triangle Fire tragically illustrated that fire inspections and precautions were woefully inadequate at the time. Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked– owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials. For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno. Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters’ ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive.

Nothing has changed in 100 years — workers’ lives are thought of as expendable, corners are cut in the name of profit, whether the name is Triangle Waist Company or Wal-Mart.

What did change a bit in the wake of the 1911 fire was a renewed drive to unionize and strengthen health and safety laws. Out of the tragedy, workers mobilized.

Whether that will happen in Bangladesh is to be seen. It would be a great testament to those who died is, out of the ashes of the fire, workers organized to stop the survivors and others from being future victims of the greed of Wal-Mart and its global corporate ilk.

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