By Buzz Potamkin, former studio executive and producer, in the biz for 40+ years, now a consultant
Today is the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Readers of this blog will notice a certain resemblance between Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, proprietors of the Triangle Waist Company, and today’s financial industry titans: serial fires (at least 4 previously, apparently at times with excess inventory, all conveniently insured), disregard for risk, blatant violation of governmental regulations and codes, use of corporate veils, aggressive legal representation, friendly “powers that be,” and continued unaltered conduct after the fact. Neither of them ever went to jail: both were beneficiaries of Judge Thomas C.T. Crain’s overly limiting jury charge in their trial for manslaughter in the death of 24-year old Margaret Schwartz, and both were cleared in the death of 23-year old Jacob Klein by Judge Samuel Seabury’s instructions to that jury to find for the defendants. (If you, humble reader, notice a certain pattern in judges named Crain and Seabury presiding in the cases of victims named Schwartz and Klein, let me not dissuade you.)
While Harris does not appear to have come to the notice of the authorities in later life, in just 2 years Blanck was back in court over another locked fire door at his new factory at 79 Fifth Avenue. Chief Justice Isaac Franklin Russell apologized to Blanck for his troubles, and then fined him the mandatory minimum the law provided: $20. No further action.
As for developer and landlord Joseph Asch, nothing. No citation or action regarding the rusted-close standpipe, the rotted inoperable fire hose, or the flimsy, incomplete, and collapsed fire escape. He did renovate the Asch building and add fire prevention aides, including sprinklers – but in August, 1913, the Times thundered that the Fire Commissioner’s visit to the renovated building (still called the Asch by the Times, but already name-changed to the Greenwich Building) “revealed once more the singular carelessness of humanity.” However, the building was not closed nor even cited.
And in 1914 the wrongful death civil suits were settled for $75 per life.
Today, the Triangle Fire commemoration industry is in full swing: TV specials, theatrical productions, street art projects, New York Times blanket coverage, and an expected 10,000 person march from Union Square to the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street ending with a solemn service in memory of the 146 who died in the fire and a speech from US Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. The tonality of most of these remembrances can be summarized as “This was horrible, but these 146 victims will not be forgotten and their deaths brought us to today’s enlightened and forceful workplace safety standards.” Unfortunately, not true.
Mike Wallace (not that Mike Wallace, this one is Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York and co-author of the 4.2 pound 1,416 page Gotham) put it far better than I ever could:
Such triumphalism, while inspiring, overlooks the fact that history can run backward, and that gains won can be lost again — and have been, repeatedly. Many of the initial post-Triangle reforms were strenuously opposed by conservative businessmen. Unable at first to prevail amid mass indignation at the fire and shocking revelations about working conditions in the city and state, they were soon back in the saddle and able to halt, hamstring or reverse liberal initiatives.
Not to forget that laws, regulations and codes require enforcement, and enforcement requires not only intent but also appropriations. Both intent and enforcement have been on the decline this century throughout the land, and currently all regulatory appropriations (federal, state and local) are under attack with the convenient excuse of The War on The Deficit. Over the past few years:
BP refinery in Texas City – 15 dead, over 150 injured
Sago mine, West Virginia – 12 dead
Darby mine, Kentucky – 5 dead
Deutsche Bank fire, NY – 2 firefighters dead, 2 injured
Sugar refinery, Georgia – 13 dead, over 40 injured
Power plant, Connecticut – 6 dead, over 50 injured
Upper Big Branch mine, West Virginia – 29 dead
Deepwater Horizon – 11 dead, GOM decimated by worst US oil spill
Interestingly, the Deutsche Bank fire brings us back full circle to Triangle: faulty standpipe, inoperable sprinklers, blocked exits, no city inspections, even no permits, and parties that should be indicted but aren’t, including the City of New York for gross negligence. Yes, there are 4 indictments: John Galt and 3 others are currently on trial for second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment. (I would hope that Alan Greenspan and the other Randians have formed the John Galt Defense of Freedom Committee with tax-deductible donations from the Koch brothers and others, but I have no cite.) In Galt’s case, the maximum fine is $10,000 or $5,000 per life, not much off (current-dollar adjusted) the $75 per life paid in 1914.
One final ironic question: what happened to the building? Asch continued to operate the building for manufacturing tenants, until 1915 when NYU began to expand into the building from its Main Building next door; by 1919, NYU occupied all 3 Triangle floors, now renovated. In 1920 Asch sold the building to the Arrow Holding Company, which 4 days later sold it on to Bleecker-Washington Properties, Inc., headed by Aaron Rabinowitz and Maurice Spear. (Maurice Spear later sold Spear Co., Inc., to Harry Helmsley to form Helmsley-Spear. Harry’s second wife was Leona of “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes…” fame.) NYU expanded in the building, taking all of it by 1926. In 1929, Fredrick Brown bought the building from Bleecker-Washington for $700,000 and gave it to NYU the same day. Amid much publicity, NYU renamed it the Brown Building. Brown assumed the building’s $280,000 mortgage and added another $120,000 mortgage on top; he agreed to make all due payments. Unfortunately for NYU, but true to the building’s history, in 1932 Brown ceased making payments and the debt was left for NYU to pay. Nevertheless NYU kept his name on the building, as it is today.