Nearly 50 years after the fact, Frank Rubino, a captain at a Lower East Side fire station, remembered the still-smoking bodies.
At closing time on March 25, 1911, a fire ripped through the Triangle Waist Factory in Greenwich Village. Within a half-hour, 145 people were dead. Some were burned. Others leaped out windows or down the elevator shaft. A victim who'd jumped died a few days later, bringing the death toll to 146.
"Those bodies were coming down with the force of 11/2 tons by the time they hit the sidewalk," he said. "They were coming down with hair and clothes burning —- you know the girls at that time wore long hair. When the bodies didn't crash through the deadlights, they lay there on the sidewalk three or four high, burning, and we had to play the hoses on them."
Ironically, two years before the fire, Triangle employees organized a strike for better wages, hours, and working conditions, but company owners, feeling pressure from hundreds of other shirt factories in New York, resisted. Workers eventually returned to their low-paying 14-hour days with not much changed. That day in March, the owners escaped the fire, but no one thought to warn the sewing machine operators.
Days after the tragedy, New Yorkers lined the streets to pay tribute in a union-organized procession for workers who couldn't be identified by their teeth, or by the paychecks some still clutched. Union membership bloomed, and today, we have collective bargaining units and laws to protect the American worker.
But our hold is as tenuous as a governor's pen, an owner's greed, or an effective lobby. Sweatshops aren't a thing of the past, and neither should be unions.
Nor, come to think of it, is cutting corners in the name of bigger profits. A fatal bus crash of a Brooklyn-based company killed 15 last weekend. In a random search of five local tour buses, New York police found four with faulty brakes. The driver of the wrecked bus shouldn't even have been behind the wheel.
In 2010, six people died in an entirely preventable explosion at the under-construction Kleen Energy power plant in Middletown. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration eventually proposed its third-largest single-episode fine ever —- $16.6 million —- against companies and site contractors building the plant. Of the 370 violations, OSHA said 223 were "willful" —- or, according to OSHA: "committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health."
We're coming up on the 24th anniversary of the collapse of the L'Ambiance Plaza in Bridgeport, when three slabs on the fifth, sixth and seventh floors of a building under construction collapsed and killed 28 construction workers. Those fines, too, set a record.
If we don't have many charred bodies on view, we have plenty of employees who get chewed up and spat out in the name of more profit.
For the past few months, Pamela Puchalski, of the Injured Workers Unite Coalition, an initiative funded by the nonprofit Connecticut Council on Occupational Safety and Health, has been obsessed with the Triangle fire. Puchalski is organizing a 100th anniversary commemoration of the Triangle fire at the atrium of the Legislative Office Building in Hartford at 4:30 p.m. Friday — roughly the moment the fire started 100 years ago in Greenwich Village.
The event will include a dramatic presentation by the Colchester Community Theatre. Scholarships will be awarded. Photos of workers injured through the state's history will be displayed. Puchalski doesn't pretend her list of injured workers is comprehensive. As she says, some things really haven't changed all that much in 100 years.
Courant staff writer and columnist Susan Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.