Almost 100 years ago on March 25th, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floor of a factory in the Asch building in New York City. Within 18 minutes 146 people were dead. Many threw themselves out of the ninth floor windows to escape the flames. Six of the victims were too badly burned to be identified.1
Survivors recounted horrific stories of their escape from the building. They found locked exit doors that blocked their escape.2 A fire escape that bent under the weight of everyone trying to flee. Firefighter’s ladders were several stories too short and the water from their hoses didn’t reach the top floor.
The Triangle Waist Company was like many other sweatshops of the time. The workers worked excessively long hours in poor and dangerous conditions for low wages. The were young, mostly immigrants—very often women. Workers were often sourced by sub-contractors, who paid the workers and took a cut of the profit. Owners sometimes didn’t know who were working for them, or even how many people were working for them at any given time.
This system made it difficult to identify the victims. No newspaper or city agency at the time had a complete list of the victims’ names. Many of the names on the existing lists were found to be misspelled, belonged to survivors of the fire or even people who’d never worked at the factory.3
Now, thanks to the hard work of research Michael Hirsch all 146 victims have been identified. Mr. Hirsch, a co-producer for the upcoming documentary “Triangle: Remembering the Fire,” consulted approximately 32 newspapers from the time period, including both mainstream and ethnic papers. He, then, matched his discoveries against census records, New York vital records, records kept by unions and relief agencies, and spoke with descendants. He was able to identify the last six victims as:
- Josephine Cammarata (age 17), possibly a cousin of Concetta Prestifilippo
- Dora Evans (age 18)
- Max Florin (age 23)
- Maria (Tortorelli?) Lauletti (age 33), her younger sister Isabella Tortorelli also died
- Concetta Prestifilippo (age 22), possibly a cousin of Josephine Cammarata
- Fannie Rosen (age 21), changed her name from Faiga Reznik
Many of the techniques used by Hirsch can aid in family research—compiling and comparing information from a variety of sources in an attempt to positively identify an individual. What fascinates me about this story is the wider benefit that family historians can create with their research. An acknowledgment and some sense of closure as we learn about the tragedies that befall our family members. The descendants and relatives of these six victims will now have the public acknowledgment of the loss their families suffered that terrible March afternoon in 1911.
- Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire website ↩
- Owners had often locked exit doors in the past, claiming the workers stole from them. ↩
- Berger, Joseph,”100 Years Later, the Roll of the Dead in a Factory Fire Is Complete,” The New York Times, 20 Feb 2011, nytimes.com, 27 Feb 2011 (date viewed); This source may no longer be available online. ↩