Triangle: A Novelby Katharine Weber
Esther Gottesfeld is the last living survivor of the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire and has told her story countless times in the span of her lifetime. Even so, her death at the age of 106 leaves unanswered many questions about what happened that fateful day. How did she manage to survive the fire when at least 146 workers, most of them women, her sister… See more details below
Esther Gottesfeld is the last living survivor of the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire and has told her story countless times in the span of her lifetime. Even so, her death at the age of 106 leaves unanswered many questions about what happened that fateful day. How did she manage to survive the fire when at least 146 workers, most of them women, her sister and fiancé among them, burned or jumped to their deaths from the sweatshop inferno? Are the discrepancies in her various accounts over the years just ordinary human fallacy, or is there a hidden story in Esther's recollections of that terrible day?
Esther's granddaughter Rebecca Gottesfeld, with her partner George Botkin, an ingenious composer, seek to unravel the facts of the matter while Ruth Zion, a zealous feminist historian of the fire, bores in on them with her own mole-like agenda. A brilliant, haunting novel about one of the most terrible tragedies in early-twentieth-century America, Triangle forces us to consider how we tell our stories, how we hear them, and how history is forged from unverifiable truths.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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TRIANGLE (Chapter One)
This is what happened. I was working at my machine, with only a few minutes left before the end of the day, I remember so clearly I can still see it, that I had only two right sleeves remaining in my pile—my sister Pauline, she did the left sleeves and I did the right sleeves and between us we could finish sometimes as many as twenty-four shirtwaists in an hour, three hundred shirtwaists on a good day, if the machines didn’t break down and if the thread didn’t break too often, and if nobody put a needle through her finger, which happened all the time and the biggest problem then was you didn’t want to bleed on the goods but you didn’t want to stop work so you took a piece of scrap and you wrapped your finger tight and you kept working—my sister was a little faster than I was and sometimes her finished pile would be high because she did her sleeve first and then I would take from her pile to do the right sleeve but I have to say my seams were the ones always perfectly straight.
And then when I was done, the waist would be finished except for sewing on the buttons and trimming the loose threads, and who did that was the little girls over in the nursery, that’s what we called that corner, the nursery, some of those girls were only ten or eleven years old already working and working, poor things, but what other life did they know? Those little girls would sew on the buttons and cut all the loose threads and then the waist would be ready for pressing.
It was payday that day, it was a Saturday, and the pay envelopes had just been handed out, and before that for a few minutes there was a break and my friend Ida Brodsky, she died, she was a wonderful friend to me, she made a cake for a surprise because of my engagement to Sam, because we had just said a few days before we would get married, we didn’t even get a ring yet, and people were happy for us, all the girls working together, it was so cheerful sometimes even with the hard work. I had my pay envelope and my sister’s also, to keep for her, we each got maybe six or eight dollars or sometimes less, except in a good week, and once we each made twelve dollars for a week’s work but that was an exception, but you could live on that money we made and send some home, too. We thought we were doing well, we were happy enough with what we had, even though the unions told us to get more and told us we shouldn’t be so happy, and they were right, but we were never hungry, we were so young and healthy and strong, and it felt like a chance to get ahead, so we didn’t mind the long days and the terrible loud noise of the machines and the smell of the oil everywhere.
That oil, they had to use it, to keep the machines going, but they could have opened those dirty windows for even a breath of fresh air, it wouldn’t have made us work slower and who knows it might have made us work better, but all the windows were always kept closed tight—and I remember I just took a moment from my machine to tuck the pay packets for both of us into my stocking to be safe like always, I took them both from our boss, Mr. Jacobs, so my sister could keep working for every minute left—and the next day would have been our one day off in the week, so we were looking forward to that—and then there was a big noise behind me, while I was still bending down, like nothing I had ever heard, and I thought, What could that be?
So loud, like an explosion and something breaking all at once! So I turned around, and my sister next to me, she turned around too, and what did we see? Flames! They were just outside the window on the Greene Street side, they were right there behind me. The flames were coming up from the eighth floor but we didn’t know everybody on the eighth floor was already in a commotion and escaping because that’s where the fire started, and a lot of those girls got out before that big noise which was the windows breaking from the fire, mostly they got out from the eighth floor, but we were on the ninth floor, that’s where I worked already for a year with my sister, we learned English so fast and we had these good jobs and our life in America was a big adventure for us. We thought it was fortunate to work on the ninth floor where the bosses gave a little more pay and the really skilled girls, the fastest workers, they had their machines. Maybe that was never true and it was the same on the eighth floor but this is what we thought. Nobody on our floor knew what was happening right underneath us until those windows blew out. More people could have got out if we knew, but nobody told us. They knew on the tenth floor and they all got out, but one. A lot of people below us and everyone above us got out. Only on the ninth floor it was unlucky to be, because nobody told us.
And so first we had this big explosion and we saw these flames and the girls all around me started to shout and scream, my sister also, and everyone was in a commotion and the flames got bigger at the window and then the flames, they were inside with us, coming along the wall and across the floor like water flowing, I’ve never seen anything like that and I am thinking this is very bad—and the next thing you know the flames were around us, and right next to us, and we can feel this heat like a furnace and at first there was the screaming but nobody was moving, everybody was frozen for a moment, but then there was a rush of all the girls trying to get across the room at once, but they were blocked by the machinery because the big rows of sewing machines were on these long tables with no gaps, they took up so much space and there was no way to pass except at the ends of the rows of tables, and some girls tried to crawl under but there was no room with the pedals and the machinery and they were pushing and there were girls climbing across the tables with their long skirts bunched and getting caught in the machines and they were falling and shoving and everyone was shouting and pushing and grabbing and calling out, and the Italian girls were praying and screaming to each other.
Mr. Grannick, one of the garment cutters, a very nice little man, he stood up on a chair and tried to make the girls listen but a lot of the girls couldn’t see him because now there was so much smoke, and people were screaming and coughing and choking and nobody could hear what he was saying with the noise—he was one of the ones who got out—and I saw a girl with her hair on fire, and then another one running with her clothes all burning up and so I pushed my way past these two Italian sisters, I think one was called Rosalie, she was the young one, they were just standing there screaming and crying without moving, their faces were all red and their eyes were all red and they were in my way and I never saw them again, I’m sorry, God help me and God help them, but I pushed past them and I saw there were too many girls at the door and nobody could go out that way, it was a terrible thing, but nobody’s fault, because the door, it opened in, didn’t we all know that already, it was a narrow door we all used it to go out, because it was the only way out, it had to be, so we could pass by the guard who inspected us to make sure we weren’t stealing any of the goods—some of the girls took scraps home to make things, and some of them even stole finished waists, one girl, she was new, she tried to hide a waist tucked into her hair in a big rat—that was a style and that was what we called it, a rat—but she was caught, it was just the week before, her name was Ella something Italian like Piacentini, something like that, and she was crying and she promised never to do it again but we didn’t see her any more after that day and we were sorry for her—who would know how lucky she was to be sent away in disgrace from the Triangle that week?
The fire was getting hotter and it was everywhere, on the machines and the tables and all our work was burning up and the smoke was so thick and the smell was just terrible, black from the oil and the burning goods and the smell was so strong, and everyone was coughing and gagging and choking, and there was also the very horrible smell of burning hair, and all those girls were pushing and pushing together, it was just so terrible I can’t really describe it, they were all pushing at once and the girls in the front maybe even got squeezed to death from the pushing but nobody could open that door.
I had an idea about another door—sometimes the bosses went in and out this other door, we were never allowed to go that way on the weekend when the freight elevators weren’t running—it was by the back side of the building instead of the Washington Place side, they would go on these other stairs by the freight elevators to walk up to the tenth floor where the offices were, so I had this idea—I don’t know why nobody else thought of this but everyone was in a big panic and maybe everyone assumed the other door would be locked like always but you have to try, and I’m sorry to say this about all those poor girls who didn’t make it but nobody else thought to try—and I pulled my sister by the hand to go with me over there, across the room, but it was like running towards the flames and it probably didn’t seem right to go towards the fire and all the black smoke to get away, but that’s how a lot of people got out from this building in one way or another, running into the fire to get through, and my sister, why did she pull back, I don’t know.
And meanwhile there were girls at the passenger elevator door trying to crowd into the elevator, too many of them, and it was smoke everywhere, and the windows were breaking on both sides and there were girls with their hair on fire and their dresses on fire—screaming, screaming like you can’t imagine, like animals, not like people anymore—and they were standing in the windows screaming and then they were jumping and the girls watched the ones who jumped, and then they were in the window after them, and then they jumped, in rows, it was like they waited their turns, it was just so terrible.
I never thought about jumping, to tell you the truth. I don’t know why, I just somehow thought I could escape this and live some more. I was foolish and so young I didn’t know that it was almost impossible and so I thought I could try to keep alive. But other girls were just as young with their lives ahead of them too, like me, and they didn’t see a way to get out like I did, so maybe it was just I was lucky. Because it was then I saw Mr. Jacobs, he was the contractor my sister and I worked for, I saw him with a waist around his face so he could breathe with all the smoke and all you could see were his eyes, they were red from the smoke, and he was coughing like everybody, and I saw him go to this other door I mentioned, the door by the freight elevators to the stairs we aren’t supposed to use on weekends, and he had a key and my sister was right behind me, and I saw him unlock the door and I went to follow him, but my sister wasn’t right behind me anymore.
I should have held her hand tighter, but I didn’t, because I thought she was right behind me, and then she wasn’t there, and I saw her, she was going through the flames the other way, because the flames were everywhere now, and you couldn’t tell which way was which, and where she was going, I found out, even though I didn’t know it right then, where she was going was to my fiancé, that was Sam, Sam Gottesfeld, he was twenty, and like I said, we were going to be married, and he was at the corner window on the Washington Place side, and he was helping the girls.
And she went to him, my sister went to him, I don’t know what she was thinking, and I don’t know what he was thinking, staying by the window where nobody could get out, why he didn’t try to go to the stairs or the elevator, or try that terrible fire escape hardly anyone could go on, I don’t know, even though he wouldn’t have lived anyway if he did that, because so many girls tried that and they died, but I don’t know what he was thinking staying there by the window, not even trying. I called her, I called to my sister, but she didn’t hear me, and everyone was coughing and screaming so loud, and I tried to go closer and keep calling her name, but she didn’t hear me with all the screaming, and the noise was so terrible from the fire roaring and the little girls wailing, there were some little girls, nobody was helping them and they were burning, and they were coughing and gagging, it was pitiful, and they were crying with the smoke, the smoke made everybody cry, there was so much smoke, and I tried to get to my sister but the flames caught on my hair, and I was getting burned, and I had to go back, so I went back to that door Mr. Jacobs had unlocked, and he was gone, there was nobody else near me now and there was nothing behind me but flames, like a wall of fire, and I went through, and I fell down, but then I got up and I saw that you couldn’t go down the stairs with the fire so I went up the stairs to the tenth floor and there was nobody there, they had all saved themselves already.
It was full of smoke but I saw a ladder that was there, and it was going up to an opening in the ceiling and I went up that ladder to the roof, and there were firemen on the roof and when they saw me one of them said, “Here comes another one, must be the last one,” and then they grabbed me and shouted at me I had to crawl across a ladder over a big gap to a building on the Waverly Place side and they helped me climb up onto the ladder and I did this somehow with my dress burned and my hands burned, and I had broken ribs, it turns out, but I don’t know how that happened in the commotion, and I kept my eyes closed, and it was like another nightmare inside this nightmare, but I did it, and there were some students who helped me over the wall, and then they helped me stand up, and then I walked down the ten flights of stairs to the ground floor of that empty building, and I was by myself and it was like everything was normal and quiet for a minute. But then I went out on the street and a policeman ordered me across the street, like I was just a busybody, because there were bodies falling everywhere and he said I could be killed.
So I crossed the street, and there were all these people looking up and so I looked up, and what I saw was so terrible, the girls jumping, jumping from so high up, they weren’t like people, it was like watching insects or animals do something they have to do because they can’t think for themselves, this one girl jumped and she tried to keep herself straight, I could see her trying to stay in a line, moving her arms like she thought she could just fall straight and land on her feet and be fine, but she died. Some of the girls were still on fire, lying there on the sidewalk, and the firemen turned the hoses on the bodies to put out the fires, and then one girl jumped and her skirt caught on the sign pole sticking out from the fourth-floor business, it was Blum, they had trimmings and notions, and she hung there screaming, and she was burning up, and then her skirt burned away and dropped her from that sign pole and she fell on the sidewalk, and she was still burning, and the sound was so terrible when she fell, like a bag of wet laundry falling. Some people on the street, they said afterwards, thought they were throwing out the goods to save them, in bundles, when they saw the falling girls, but it wasn’t bundles of goods falling and making that terrible sound.
So then I walked to the corner where I could see the sidewalk on the Washington Place side because I was looking everywhere for my sister, where she would have fallen, and there were bodies everywhere and I was looking at them to see her but I didn’t see her. I saw so many girls I knew in the street like that, and some of the men, the machinists, the cutters from over by the window where the flames came in. Some of the girls I knew only a few days but others I knew for a while and it was such a big shock, one would be burned black like a cinder but I would know the boots or the dress, and then another would be perfect and still beautiful except dead from the fall.
There were ladders for the firemen, but they didn’t go high enough so they were useless, and there were firemen with another useless thing, a big net they were holding in the middle of Greene Street, and next I saw three girls at once, these girls were jumping into it holding hands, but they went right through this foolish net feet first, all together like that, and they hit the pavement and the force of the falling girls flipped all the firemen right into the net on top of the dead girls, it was just craziness—and then everyone was shouting and pointing and I looked up and I saw Sam, my fiancé, in the window, it was all broken, there was nothing left of the window, just the big opening, and he was helping girls. He was still alive but I didn’t see my sister.
I had to sit down on the curb, I was so weak, and there was blood running past me over my shoes, it was water from the fire hoses mixed with blood, it was like a river of blood running past me, it was so terrible, and I just sat there letting it run over my shoes and I couldn’t even open my mouth anymore like I forgot how to talk English and I just watched. Everywhere on the street there was money. Coins from everyone’s pockets, because it was payday and so in their pockets and their stockings they had their money, and it fell out from the pay packets or wherever they were carrying it, and it was all over the street. They told us before we came here, in America the streets are paved with gold, and this day it was true, but so terrible, to see this money in the gutter. For what did they work so hard, but to have this money?
There were three girls Sam helped to step up onto the sill, one at a time, it was like slow motion suddenly even though it was all in a minute, and it was very narrow, not such an easy place to stand, and you could see there was hardly any window ledge, and there were flames behind them shooting out of the window, and he helped each one of them get up to the sill, he would give her a hand and help her to stand up straight and calm and steady and then he would let go each one of them, and each girl would just fall away and then the next girl would come in her place, and they were just falling out that window, one after the other, with Sam to help them, three times he did this, and then I looked at the window again and what did I see but Sam, he was a good man, such a decent man, and there was my sister standing beside him. And he helped her up and then she waited for him and he got up onto the ledge too, and he took her arms and he put them around his neck like to hold on in the ocean, and he put his arms around my sister, and they kissed each other, and then together they jumped.
That’s it. I have said all I remember about that terrible day until the next thing I know, when I am waking up in the hospital with the pain and there are all the clean white sheets on me, and the doctors and the nurses are telling me how lucky I am to be alive, how lucky it is that my baby is safe inside of me, and also they are telling me what I already know, about Sam, and about my sister, that he is dead and that my sister Pauline is dead, and I am alone.
—Transcribed recollections of Esther Gottesfeld, from Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire Fifty Years Later, March 25, 1961, commemorative booklet published by the ILGWU, New York City
TRIANGLE Copyright © 2006 by Katharine Weber
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