Its owner was correct when he said the 10-story Asch Building in downtown Manhattan was fireproof. The problem was that its contents were not. Thus, the cloth and paper used on the top three floors by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company's garment workers fed the March 25, 1911, fire that resulted in the deaths of 146 people, the worst workplace disaster in New York City's history before that Tuesday morning in September two years ago.
Other authors have told the story of the fire but probably never as completely and carefully as David Von Drehle in Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. Von Drehle, a journalist who pored over more than 1,300 long-lost, crumbling pages of trial testimony, examines the tragedy in a wider context than ever before and produced what historians likely will regard as the first complete and most reliable list of the victims and the people who identified the remains on the pier that became a makeshift morgue.
After taking us to the congested Lower East Side, with its dingy workshops and teeming mass of new immigrants, the author brings alive rich society matrons joining poor sweatshop seamstresses to defy thugs, cops and judges intent on breaking up their strike for decent wages, tolerable hours and voting rights. Von Drehle gives us a minute-by-minute replay of the fire itself, with some victims being burned alive, others plunging fatally down an elevator shaft, and, by one reporter's count, 54 people mostly young women leaping or falling from window ledges to their doom. Then we visit the courtroom, where the tight-fisted factory proprietors managed to beat the accusation that they knew the building's exit doors were locked an illegal practice that allowed guards to search workers' purses for pilfered goods. A powerful story about a pivotal event in the maturation of our nation, Triangle is a valuable addition to the literature of reform in America.