Rose Freedman, the last survivor of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in New York that claimed 146 lives and raised the nation's consciousness about workplace safety, died at her home in Beverly Hills on Thursday. She was 107.
Her memories of the industrial disaster that ultimately transformed working conditions for Americans remained sharp well past her 100th birthday. She lived independently until she became ill several months ago, amazing friends and family with her energy and an intellectual zest that had her studying Spanish, her seventh language, in her last years.
She supported the labor movement, speaking at a garment workers rally in Los Angeles when she was 104. In January she was featured in the first episode of a PBS television series on centenarians called "The Living Century."
Freedman was born in Vienna in 1893 when the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. At 15, she joined the wave of European immigrants to America, arriving in New York on the steamship Mauritania in 1909.
Although she had a comfortable life in Vienna, she regarded her arrival in the United States "like a miracle"--the first of several in a remarkable life.
The daughter of a businessman, she stayed home and tended house. But insulted when her sister said that housework was not really work, she decided to become like other American girls and get a job.
"I wanted to show that I'm [a] real American and I want to work like everybody else. And I went on my own, found a job," she said in the PBS documentary. "And then, I almost paid with my life."
She became one of more than 500 young women--mostly 16- to 23-year-old Italian and Jewish immigrants--who found work at Triangle Shirtwaist Co., which made a popular style of dresses. She was 16 and was hired to stitch buttons. The going wage was $3 for a six-day week.
Freedman was at work on March 25, 1911, when a fire alarm sounded at 4:43 p.m. The factory, which occupied the 10-story Asch Building off Washington Square in Lower Manhattan, had 700 employees, and nearly all were there on that Saturday. It was payday and close to quitting time.
On the eighth floor, a small fire smoldering in a rag bin had suddenly exploded, fed by oil from sewing machines and by the rows of tissue patterns hanging above the cutting tables. Workers surged to the fire doors, but the doors had been bolted to prevent the women from taking breaks or stealing. The factory had one fire escape, but when women piled on, it collapsed, plunging them to the pavement nine stories below.
Flames chased the workers, igniting their skirts and hair. Many felt they had no choice but to jump. Some aimed for firefighters' nets, which did little good. A 13-year-old girl hanging by her fingertips for several minutes on a 10th-floor ledge fell into one of the nets, along with two other women, but it split apart on impact and all three died. A man was seen gallantly offering women his hand as they stepped one after another into the thin air, until finally he embraced one of them and dropped her before falling to his own death. "They hit the pavement like rain," a fire chief sadly testified much later, after the sidewalks had been cleared of the broken bodies.
Within minutes, the fire bounded to the ninth floor, where Freedman worked.
"All of a sudden, you've got a terrible panic," Freedman said. "Everybody was running to the door. It was locked."
She worked just one floor below the executives. She wondered: Where were they?
She ran up to the 10th floor, but the bosses were gone. While terror reigned below them, they had fled to the roof.
"They saved themselves already," she said.
Freedman pulled her dress over her head and rushed to the roof. Firemen hoisted her to the top of the adjacent building. She was exhausted, her faced was charred and her eyebrows singed, but she made it down several flights of stairs, sat on a stoop and cried.
The flames were extinguished in half an hour, but 126 women and 20 men were dead. Investigators later decided that a lit cigarette was the probable cause of the worst factory fire in New York history.
Horror followed the revelations of conditions inside the building: the locked doors, poor sanitation and crowding, and the employers' disregard for the simplest precautions, such as fire drills. Public outrage intensified with the acquittals on manslaughter charges of the Triangle owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck.
The Triangle fire became a watershed in labor history, resulting in changes that profoundly affected the modern American workplace. Thirty-six laws were passed in three years, improving everything from building design and fire regulations to working hours for women and children.
Although the Triangle owners tried to buy Freedman's silence, she refused to lie about the locked doors and did not participate in their trial. She left the garment business and went on to college but never forgot about the greed and exploitation that caused so much suffering and death.