Today is the 100th anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the 8th floor of the factory. Workers tried to put it out, to no avail—and as the fire spread through the building, which was meant to be fireproof, so did panic. In a Shakespearean twist, a locked door and a phone left off the hook contributed to the high fatality count, which included as many as 54 people who jumped from the top of the 10-story building. It didn't help that the firemen's ladders only reached the sixth story. The ensuing trial brought about labor reforms and workplace safety regulations, though the factory owners were found not guilty.
The Triangle fire stood as the worst workplace disaster in American history until September 11, 2001. And, for those of you waiting for the literary tie-in, it has inspired at least two memorable books: one fiction, one nonfiction.
Katharine Weber's Triangle: A Novel was inspired both by the author's family history (her grandmother once worked at the factory, though she left two years before the fateful day) and her fascination with the testimony of one of the survivors. In her 2006 Behind the Book piece for us, she wrote that Rose Freedman "told her story countless times. What would that be like, telling your story again and again, for 90 years, the story of the day you didn't die?"
In David Von Drehle's Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, journalist Von Drehle went through the complete testimony from the trial as well as documents from survivor to create an authoritative account of the disaster that our BookPage reviewer called "powerful."
"CBS Sunday Morning" recently did a piece on the fire, highlighting Michael Hirsch, who recently identified of all 146 people who died in the fire; a woman whose 21-year-old aunt saved several women before becoming trapped in the building herself (like many others, she jumped to her death); and a descendant of the Blanck family, who owned the factory and who moved away and changed the spelling of their last name in the wake of the trial.
As a fan of novels about real-life events (and a fan of Katharine Weber), I devoured Triangle: A Novel back when it was published. Do you like reading fiction based on real life, or would you have gone with the nonfiction account?