My Great-Grandmother’s Fire
When I was young, for a reason I don’t remember, my mother told me that my great-grandmother had survived a famous fire. The Triangle Fire, she called it, explaining that it had been a very famous fire, and that many people had died. Some had burned to death, but most had jumped from very high windows to escape the flames. This was very interesting to me, primarily because I hoped it might impress the kids at school. It wasn’t likely that any of them had a relative who had been in a Famous Fire. Sharing the information with my fellow third-graders the next day at Dogwood Elementary School, I quickly realized that the other students cared little about Famous Fires and that, having impressed no one, I would continue to be picked last for recess dodgeball teams for the foreseeable future.
Still, that fire factoid stuck in my mind, and I began to think of it as “my great-grandmother’s fire.” Four years later I happened upon – dusty and discount-sticker tagged – a large, red, hardcover book languishing in the discount bin of our local K-Mart. The title, in bold black letters was, simply: DISASTERS. The book, measuring approximately two feet by one foot, contained reprints of The New York Time’s front page reporting of every major disaster from the late 1800’s until the current year, 1976. One look inside, revealing a grainy black-and-white Times photo of a giant jetliner lying dismembered and smoking in a city street, and I knew I had to have this book. It took only a minimum of begging before my mother agreed to buy it for me.
Had she looked between the covers of the book before purchase, she probably would have first blanched and then insisted I put it back. Thrilled at benefiting from a rare bad parental decision, I eagerly removed the giant book from the bag on the ride home and was immediately sucked in by the multitude of grainy half-tone reprints of extremely graphic photographs . Apparently, the rules for what kind of photos were allowed in print were much more lax in the early days of disaster reportage. There were scores of fires in that book, along with plane crashes and earthquakes and tsunamis. The photos I found the most interesting, however, were those of the fire victims and the dark puzzle that each one contained. A policeman or fireman stared into the camera flash, while at their feet lay masses of what were identified as bodies, burned, as the caption declared “beyond recognition. ” Burned beyond recognition was a fascinating, if horrible concept, even for a twelve-year old as morbid as I was, and I turned and tilted the book to study the lumpy, black masses until I could detect a form – perhaps a head, a leg or an arm. Okay, there’s the head, so this must be an arm. I sought to recognize the unrecognizable, and I recall succeeding with a pile of charred bodies from a long-ago trolley car fire in Chicago. One moment I was staring, uncomprehending, at a jumbled pile of black, gray and white shapes. The next moment, a face, skull-like, with a grinning death rictus, was staring back at me. I shuddered. The whole book seemed as taboo as porn to me, and I decided that my mother could never be permitted to know it’s content. I couldn’t risk having this taken away from me until I’d devoured it from beginning to end.
“Hey!” I shouted anyway, having happened on a reprinted story from March, 1911. “Your grandmother’s fire is in here!” Impressed that my great-grandmother’s fire was now offically, formally confirmed in print as a Famous Fire, I set about reading all of the associated stories, soaking in the horrifying details conveyed in the sensational, slightly dramatic reporting style of the time. The photos were heartbreaking, because they did not require careful studying: the heaps of bodies on the sidewalk, where scores of young women had landed after jumping to their deaths, were easily discernible as the living, breathing creatures they had so recently been.
At the age of twelve, I was more entranced by the gory details of the sweatshop disaster that killed 148 workers, mostly young immigrant women, than I was by the greater implications that the story held for society and the evolution of worker’s rights in the United States. In fact, I could have cared less about that part. Yes, it made me angry that the owners of the clothing factory doomed their workers by locking exit doors so those departing could be searched for any illicitly pocketed fabric, thread of buttons. Yes, it was stunning that so many workers were crammed onto each floor, and that no safety precautions had been taken: no sprinklers, no fire drills. That these young women often worked seven days a week for pennies seemed outrageous to my slightly spoiled, adolescent brain. But at twelve, having never had a job, still 12 years away from any conscious political thought, I focused only on the actual tragedy: who died where, how many jumped, how many burned to death, and the bodies lined up in a makeshift morgue for tearful identification.
Some years later, in high school, The fire came up again in our social studies class. Although I felt that I had bragging rights, that I could let my teacher know that my great-grandmother had been in this Famous Fire, I kept silent. I realized that I really knew nothing about my great-grandmother’s experience, and I feared that if I brought up my connection to the infamous sweatshop, people might ask questions that I wouldn’t be able to answer. How had she survived? I had no idea. How old was she? I wasn’t sure. After school, I asked my mother if her grandmother had ever talked about the fire, and if she had any details she could share with me.
My mother is a fascinating woman for many reasons: One reason is all the bits of family trivia and information that she holds in her steel-trap mind. Another is her complete lack of awareness that some of her family might actually want to know some of this information. It’s not that getting the information out of her is difficult, she loves to talk. The problem seems to be that one must first ask just the right question, or know just the right verbal cue, to prompt her to share what she carries around in that lovely head of hers. My favorite example of this occurred a few years ago, when in response to a remark I made about my prominent brow, she replied, “Well, you are part Native American.” I’m still trying to reconcile that information with a near-lifetime of believing myself to be solely of Italian/Irish descent.
Apparently, now that I had made a formal and explicit inquiry, she was able to offer me what little she knew. My great-grandmother, who before marrying my great-grandfather Francis Vacante had been named Rosalie Anselmo, was in her early twenties when she worked at the Triangle Waist Factory as a seamstress, or pieceworker (meaning, simply, that she was paid per piece of clothing she sewed). She lived with her Italian immigrant parents and sister Assunta on Baltic Street in Brooklyn, and she spoke very little English. The day of the fire, she was working on the top floor of the ten-floor building, and recalled rushing up to the roof amidst smoke and confusion. There, claimed my very devout Catholic great-grandparent, she offered a prayer for salvation to her Patron Saint, Joseph. Then, according to the story she told often and with absolute conviction, he appeared before her and carried her up a ladder to safety on the roof of the adjoining building while her co-workers on lower floors jumped to their deaths or were incinerated by the flames.
By the time I learned these details, I was already firmly on the path to religious agnosticism. The Saint Joseph bit seemed a bit fanciful to me, Jonah and the Whale sort of stuff, and I even felt a creeping sense of doubt that my great-grandmother had actually been in this fire. Later, a little research would show that students from New York University next door to the burning (and prophetically named) Asch Building had lowered ladders and rescued scores of young women, many of whom had fainted, from the inferno. It was understandable to me then: that a young terrified woman could have panicked, and in a haze of semi-consciousness wrapped her young male rescuer in a saintly mantle.
Last year, while in New York, I visited the site of the fire. The building, relatively new in 1911, had remained structurally unscathed by the flames. Only the contents of its upper foors were consumed. The day I visited was chilly, and I stood on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, staring up at the 9th floor from which so many unfortunates had plunged so many years ago. The street around the building was still paved in the original cobblestone, and I shuddered imagining the thud of impact, remembering those same cobblestones from the images in my giant red book of Disasters. I realized then how my very existence, the existence of my family, had come so very close to non-existence. The Butterfly Effect suggests that the flutter of an insects wings can impact or influence events halfway around the globe, and I understood now that the simple fact that my great-grandmother worked on the tenth floor of this building, and not the ninth, was the only reason I was standing here now. Her legacy: a huge family spread out over the United States: the Vacante, Nicastro and the Edwards clans of California, the Harvey and Jantz families in the midwest. The surnames of her descendants give proof to the American melting pot ideal. These children, grandchildren, great and great-great grandchildren exist now because of sheer luck, the completely random fact of where my great-grandmother was situated in that factory on that horrible day.
The current battle being waged between business interests and workers rights helps me appreciate the impact this fire has had on our society, illustrating that the fight for the right to organize, to bargain for fair pay and decent working conditions, is an ongoing battle that must continue to be waged. I also know that although i’ve come to think of this as my great-grandmother’s fire, I am no more connected to that terrible event than anyone who demands to be treated like a human being, paid a fair and competitive wage, and guaranteed a safe workplace.