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Devastating 1911 Fire Still Haunts Survivor

March 17, 1985|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

Seventy-four years later, Bessy Cohen still dreams of fires.

"It's so many years, I wish I could forget it," she said, recalling the March 25, 1911, blaze at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory in New York, where 146 garment workers died.

"I . . . cry and remember the faces," she said. "What hurts me is that I remember the faces. I can't forget."

Now 93, the West Hollywood resident is apparently one of the few living survivors of the fire, one of the country's worst industrial accidents.

She had been in the United States just three years when she went to work that Saturday.

"We ate lunch right on the windowsills," she recalled, "and I'll never forget that I said to one girl, 'What would happen if this place would be on fire?' Why it came to me, I do not know. And I forgot about it."

Fire Chief's Warning

But what would happen was already public record. According to "The Triangle Fire" by Leon Stein, the definitive account of the blaze, Fire Chief Edward F. Croker had testified three months earlier that his department did not have the equipment to fight a blaze above the seventh story.

Few of the factory buildings in the garment district were equipped with sprinklers or adequate fire escapes.

The workers, he said, were left with "absolutely not one fire protection, without any means of escape in case of fire."

His worst fears were realized at quitting time on March 25.

Cohen, then Bessy Gabrilowitz, had just finished her nine-hour shift at a sewing machine. She remembers: "A man turned around at the window. He opened the window and he says, 'Bessy, it's a fire.' I got scared and nervous."

Left Coat Behind

She put on her hat but decided to leave her coat in the cloak room, a move that may have saved her life. Some of her friends went for their coats--it had been a rainy day--but by the time they left the dressing room the flames had blocked their escape.

A crowd of women was pounding on the doors of the elevator shaft. A door to the adjacent stairs was locked, so Bessy Gabrilowitz ran across the room to the staircase next to the freight elevators, which were closed for the day.

"It was just like somebody would chase me," she said in an interview last week, her voice, still accented, breaking with emotion. "Walk, go. So I left those girls crying. They were standing, and I started to go down."

She reached the eighth floor, where the fire had started. "And then in the hallway there was glass, so the glass was starting to fall." She sobbed.

"And I started to run; as if somebody was in back, saying, 'Run, run.' "

On the sidewalk, firemen led her away, but not before she saw an acquaintance fall to her death from the ninth-floor window. Dozens were forced to jump.

For the young Russian immigrant, whose parents were still in the old country, the days that followed were a jumble of funerals and visits to a temporary morgue in an effort to identify the charred bodies.

After the fire, she married in 1916 and moved to Connecticut and New Jersey before following her son and daughter to California, where she lived in Boyle Heights for 39 years. She moved recently to a county housing project in West Hollywood.

Although the Triangle Co.'s owners were charged with manslaughter and found not guilty, the fire led to legislative changes to improve workers' safety.

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