Eileen Boisen Nevitt is alive today thanks to a split second of luck 100 years ago.
On March 25, 1911, a fire consumed Manhattan’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where hundreds of poor, young immigrant women toiled as seamstresses — among them Nevitt’s grandmother, Annie Sprinsock.
The doors were padlocked. The fire ladders reached no higher than the sixth floor. Within 30 minutes, 146 were dead, most of them Jews.
Sprinsock, 17 at the time, was among the last workers on the last elevator down to safety. Ten seconds more, and she surely would have perished.
The Triangle Fire has lived on as a tragic part of American lore. With the centennial approaching next week, many organizations, including Jewish institutions, will commemorate what remains the worst industrial accident in American history.
Among the commemorations is a March 27 event at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Library. It features presentations by library volunteer and former labor organizer Judy Baston, Sonoma State University history professor Elaine Leeder and singer Jillian Tallmer, who will perform Yiddish songs from the era.
“The labor movement was galvanized by the fire and its aftermath,” says Nevitt, an Orinda resident who has done extensive research on the fire. “Clearly it was the stimulus to get both state and federal legislation to protect workers.”
It also was a galvanizing moment for the Jewish community, according to Baston. “It’s part of our history,” she says. “[The centennial] is perhaps waking up a broader spectrum of the Jewish community to see that not only Triangle, but an actual Jewish working class, is part of Jewish history in America.”
The story of the Triangle Fire intertwines numerous threads of that history. Co-owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were themselves Jewish immigrants. Their factory, along with other New York garment district companies, were the targets of a strike two years prior to the fire, with Jewish women taking leadership positions among the strikers.
“Most figures say two-thirds of the workforce in the sweatshops were Jewish, while 75 percent of the strikers in 1909 were Jewish,” Baston adds.
They were under constant assault from police and hired goons, who had no reservations about beating up women. Yet the strikers and their fledgling union claimed victory, with significant workplace improvements as a result.
But not at Triangle. There, with the intransigent anti-union owners refusing to budge, conditions remained deplorable and dangerous. Just how dangerous was revealed on that fateful Saturday afternoon.
The fire, probably ignited by a stray cigarette butt, started on the eighth floor and soon spread to the floor above. Most stairwells and escape routes were quickly blocked by flame. Doors on the ninth floor were padlocked, the foreman having fled with the keys.
As the flames consumed the factory, terrified employees — at least 50 of them — jumped out the windows to their deaths. Others jumped down the elevator shaft.
Sprinsock barely made it out on the last elevator from the ninth floor, but before she squeezed into the last inch of standing room in the overcrowded car, she grabbed her friend Katie Weiner and held her over her head for the ride down. “Like a feminine Samson,” Nevitt said.
Nevitt had always known her grandmother, who died in 1929 at age 34, had been a survivor of the fire. But until a few years ago, she knew nothing of her heroics.
“There was no elaboration, no filling in the story until 2008, when I started Googling my grandmother,” Nevitt recalls.
In the fire’s aftermath, labor laws, especially regarding worker safety, gradually changed for the better. The co-owners of Triangle were tried and acquitted, much to the outrage of many New Yorkers.
Baston notes that Jews who believe in social action have drawn inspiration from the lessons of Triangle.
“Understanding that we haven’t always been just middle-class and comfortable, that Triangle is part of our heritage, makes us more equipped to deal with things they way they are now,” she says, referring to the shaky economy. “It makes Jews who feel vulnerable realize we faced it before and we fought it. We organized.”
Nevitt is not able to attend the library presentation. On that day, she will stand before the Asch Building on Greene Street in New York City, arm in arm with the descendants of Katie Weiner — the woman saved by her grandmother — to commemorate that dark day.
“The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: A Centennial Commemoration in Words and Music” takes place 1 to 3 p.m. March 27 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free. Information: (415) 567-3327 or www.bjesf.org.