Three plaques commemorate the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in Greenwich Village that killed 146 workers in 1911, catalyzing landmark workplace safety laws and transforming the labor movement.
But few passersby notice.
“As God as my witness, I have stood there and had someone walk up to me and say, ‘hey, can you tell me where the Triangle building is?’” said Mary Anne Trasciatti, Hofstra University’s director of labor studies and president of Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition.
On Wednesday, a new memorial — this one several stories tall — is being dedicated, over a decade and millions of dollars in the making. It will bring attention to what happened March 25, 1911, when a match or cigarette ash on the eighth floor came in contact with fabric and debris, causing a fatal, and fateful, blaze.
The door to a staircase had been locked to prevent theft, to allow foremen to check the workers' purses and, some historians say, to keep out union organizers. A fire escape was shoddily constructed and couldn’t support the weight of more than a few people at a time.
Some workers jumped to their deaths from windows. Others were overcome by smoke and flames and died. The fire department arrived, but their ladders reached the sixth floor — two below the fire.
Of the 146 workers who died, 129 were women. The youngest of the workers was 14 and the oldest in her early 40s.
“Victims Nearly All Girls, Crushed on Pavements, Smothered By Smoke or Incinerated,” read a headline in The Corrector, a newspaper in Sag Harbor at the time.
Years later, some of the survivors moved to Long Island, including Sadie Hershy, who spent most of her life in Brooklyn but later lived with her son in Merrick.
Hershy died in 1983 at 93.
Another survivor, Pauline Pepe came from her Amityville nursing home for a 75th anniversary ceremony in 1986. She was 94 and had avoided returning for 74 years. She came back at last only after entreaties by the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union.
“Go back? Why would I want to go back?” she said in 1986, according to a Newsday story. “All those memories. When I think of all those girls, and all of us just waiting to die there — no, I’m glad I never went back. But I’m glad I was there today.”
She escaped by finding one of the few open doors.
She died in 1992 at 101.
The memorial being dedicated Wednesday — a stainless-steel ribbon — cascades down a corner of the factory’s former building, a landmarked 10-story neo-renaissance structure that is now part of New York University, just east of Washington Square Park at Greene Street and Washington Place.
At that corner, the ribbon starts at the ninth floor — the fire happened on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors, but most of the 146 workers who died were working on the ninth — and at about 12 feet above the ground it splits; one side goes onto each side of the building.
The names and ages of the workers who died in the fire are stenciled in, such that light passes through the names and ages, and at about waist height, the light is reflected on a stone-glass panel.
“And when you look up closely, you see your own reflection, so it kind of draws you in,” Trasciatti said.
On the panel: stenciled testimony from survivors and eyewitnesses, including Frances Perkins, who would later become the first female U.S. secretary of labor.
As of Tuesday, the lower part of the memorial, where the 146 names are stenciled, was still behind a construction fence, to be unveiled at the ceremony. But the vertical part of the memorial — the steel ribbon spanning several stories — is still being fabricated, Trasciatti said. It's expected to be installed before the end of the year, she said.
The story of the fire is also nearby, translated into Italian and Yiddish.
“The workers were mostly Italian and Jewish, and these are the languages they would have spoken, so we wanted to honor them and their cultures,” Trasciatti said.
The memorial cost about $2.9 million, with about $1.5 million paid for by the state and the rest raised by foundations, labor unions and citizens. It was designed by Uri Wegman and Richard Joon Yoo, whose idea was picked by a jury from nearly 180 submissions.