A Tale of Two Fires
Grenfell Tower and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
WAY back in the day I was an actor with small group of players in the Flying Fig Theater company in Manhattan, NY. One of the plays we did was a musical about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, still considered by historians as one of the deadliest disasters in American/New York City history. I played a Jamaican woman loosely reported as working in this garment sweatshop of mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants. These were young immigrant girls and women and a few young men (16 — 24 years old) working on the 9th floor of a 10 story building in a space filled with flammable materials and no working sprinkler systems or installed fire alarms. All but one of the doors exiting the floor were locked from the outside to prevent unauthorized bathroom breaks or theft, in a building constructed with a cosmetically installed fire escape.
The single exit from the factory was a door leading to the elevators and a narrow stairwell, but it happened to be next to piles of fabric scraps. It was suspected that one of the supervisors did not extinguish a cigarette properly, and because the ignition of this horrific event started near the only door out, there was no escape for most of the workers inside. In just 18 minutes they were engulfed in smoke and flames. Many of them rushed towards one window and piled onto the poorly installed fire escape which easily gave way, plummeting them 9 stories down to the cobblestone street below. Some held hands and jumped out of the windows to their deaths. Others were pushed out by the flames. It was described as the day bodies rained from the sky. The fire brigade was helpless to save them as their ladders could only reach the 6th floor. 146 people, gone, in minutes.
If you are learning this for the first time, I have no doubt it reads like a copy report of the recent Grenfell Tower Fire catastrophe in London last week.
I’m trying to draw a contextual timeline between these man-made disasters, in two of the most famous, expensive, and populous cities of the Western Hemisphere. I’m trying to grapple with my incredulity.
The building, then known as the Ashe Building, is now the Brown Building, and is part of the NYU (New York University) campus east of Washington Square Park in Manhattan. It stands as a protected historical site and important reminder of a tragedy that lead to important changes we now take for granted. There was a swift formation of workers rights unions, work safety checks, improved building and fire safety codes, — including installation of sprinkler systems, fire alarms and use of fire retardants in construction. Given the sweat shop conditions these immigrants worked in, unions fought for caps on the work week, work hour minimums, and legislative lobbies to ratify these efforts. This was especially effective since a far more disastrous fire happened on a barge on the East River just a few years earlier.
In 1905, over 1000 people died in the General Slocum fire, making it the the deadliest disaster in US history prior to Sept 11th, 2001. The victims were mostly German immigrant women and children who perished in minutes, again due to improper safety inspections and neglect. With yet another avoidable tragedy on their hands with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, elected officials and the private industrial sector of New York were being held to new standards …all in the name of protecting the immigrants and working class people. The owners of the building, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were indicted for manslaughter. The prosecution was unsuccessful in proving that they knew the doors were locked, so the owners were acquitted, but later charged successfully in a wrongful death civil suit.
Except, central in the issue now with Grenfell Tower is not of industrial safety and workers rights early in the Industrial Age, but one of housing safety for immigrants, refugees, people of colour, and multigenerational families in the Global Information Age.
When this all happened — the central issue was focused on the rights and protections of the most vulnerable: immigrants, women, and the young in the workforce. I can’t help but think of this all while trying to grasp what happened in the Grenfell Tower Fire last week — just a few minutes walk from a couple of properties where I resided in Holland Park and Kensington. I’m trying to draw a contextual timeline between these man-made disasters, in two of the most famous, expensive, populous, and wealthy cities of the Western Hemisphere. I’m trying to grapple with my incredulity.
In 2017, we have laws and social systems in place to prevent exactly this kind of occurrence, especially in one of the oldest and wealthiest centers of the world, the capital of the old British Empire. Yet by the time all are counted, the numbers in the GrenFell Tower Fire in London will grossly rival if not surpass those of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York, — in 1911 — over 100 years ago! And for the same incredible and unacceptable reasons; bottom line profits being protected at the neglected expense of the lives of the poor and vulnerable. Except, central in the issue now with Grenfell Tower is not of industrial safety and workers rights early in the Industrial Age, but one of housing safety for immigrants, refugees, people of colour, and multigenerational families in the Global Information Age. People who, let’s face it, are there because many of their countries’ resources and thus economies have been drained or war torn by these very nations they now seek refuge in.
One Syrian young man, a 23 year old engineering student named Mohammad Alhajali was the first named victim lost in the Grenfell fire. His older brother who managed to get out, wept in an interview with the BBC, saying they left Syria as refugees so they could live, and only to watch his brother die by fire in London. His suffering resonated the untenable complexity of how far from progress we have actually drifted in spite of the material dominance we humans seem so proud of. What have we, and are we working towards, if those we endow with power can recycle such mistakes in a ‘1st world city', Mother of the Commonwealth and its laws, equipped with all the resources to prevent this?
What monstrous shame that sullies the good name of civility, morality, and temperance dear Britain has so earnestly striven to have the world love her for. That I have, all my life, despite the obvious colonial complexities, loved her for.
The facade, the flammable cladding used in the multimillion dollar refurbishment of Grenfell (that apparently took an age for the TMO [Tenant Mgmt Org] to even get around to doing in the first place) is apparently an illegal building material for high rises in the UK, as it is here in the United States and parts of Europe. So where were the engineers and inspectors , entrusted to ensure safety for the residents, like using retardant materials rather than accelerators in the refurbishment efforts? The materials themselves were not cheap, but the plan to use them was supposedly an economically motivated one. From what I understand, the concern was more about prevention of water damage and mold, and to create greater insulation to drive down heating energy costs and maintenance for the 120 units in the building. If there were any concerns about fire safety, then a sprinkler system and functioning fire alarms might have been installed as part of the nearly £10mil cost to ‘improve’ the place!!
It appears we have accomplished little but the facade of civility, or equal rights and protections under the law. And under the very noses of some of the wealthiest people who complained there was not enough of a facade to hide the sore of inequality blocking their view. Note many of these multi-million dollar residences in Kensington are not main abodes but rather pied-á-terres visited infrequently, if at all. So not only do we have dozens who have lost their lives, but also hundreds who are now without homes, while ironically surrounded by empty mansions.
In added insult to injury, it also took days for aid to arrive. For balance people from multiple communities sent tons of donations, but overwhelm and a lack of professional organization has stalled proper distribution of civilian aid. And still, as of this writing, many of the victims are still unaccounted for.
My visual arts and photography community now grieves the loss of the young emerging Gambian-British photo artist, Khadijah Saye who lived on the 20th Floor. She and her mother were confirmed victims lost in the fire a few days ago. Her hauntingly beautiful wet plate collodion portraits are currently on view in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Bienniale. Saye was on the verge of major international recognition for her work and is now tragically bestowed with this post-humously at the age of 24.
Another local artist who lost loved ones and colleagues, DJ Isla, bemoaned in an interview now gone viral, that all efforts thus far may end up benefitting Oxfam and Red Cross instead! “Where are the victims?”she wept. She has become the voice of the people in these last days, investigating the whereabouts of shelters, temporary hotel stays, food centers, and storage facilities where donations are being held. And as the days wear on, the real horror sinks in all the more, that many who perished in this swift inferno may not be recovered or identified for quite some time, if at all.
What monstrous shame that sullies the good name of civility, morality, and temperance dear Britain has so earnestly striven to have the world love her for. That I have, all my life, despite the obvious colonial complexities, loved her for. And BREXIT loving austere PM Theresa May(hem), days after being shamed in low parliament votes, couldn’t even be bothered to at least give a performance of giving a shit the instant this happened!! At least the Queen stepped out with her grandsons to meet with the victims. You know if Princess Diana were alive, she’d be out there holding and feeding people herself! Oh man — what a tangled web.
Anyway this madness is WAY too vulgar now. It hurts too much. So much senseless loss cannot be sustained …by anyone! And if we think atrocious avoidable tragedies like this affect only the victims, think again. This affects ALL of us. A lack of standards for the most vulnerable among us endangers all of us, and especially the wealthiest of us all. If this can happen on the fringe of one of the richest areas in Central & West London, then it is happening everywhere. This is our collective problem. A government inquest, and NOT just a public inquiry is appropriate. Do leaders actually think the people of London can’t see them protecting themselves…still?
Dearest British Parliament, London authorities, building owners RBKC (Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea), and the Council of KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation) — you have two cities, two centuries, two fires and over 100 years of lessons in between to reference here.
- These days, we build with fire retardant materials and install sprinklers, extinguishers, and alarms in buildings housing 600+ people — at the very least, and regularly inspect them too!
- These days we properly fund, train, and equip firefighters so in the event that there is an emergency, the chances of them being able to save more lives is increased by a supportive network of councils, industry leaders, and governmental systemic support and oversight. **
- These days, we should be capable of managing disaster relief efforts and the kind donations of citizens by organizing teams for distribution and nearby resettlement, rather than allowing goods to be sent off to unknown storage locations. People still don’t know where to go, or whether they will be moved to outer boroughs!
- These days, traumatized communities should be provided with information lists of the residents and emergency centers so they know where to access further information amidst the chaos.
This simply should not have happened.
And according to the Grenfell Action Group,* it didn’t have to. They’ve been asking for improved attendance to this building since 2010.
You now owe a lot to every one of these victims, their families, and this community. And you owe your attention and responsible care to protect anyone living in any building at similar risk now. The world is watching how you tend to your own yard. This is your moral and financial responsibility. There’s just no two ways about it.
*See Grenfell Action Group: Serving the Lancaster West Community blog for past and current information on the west block.
** This op-ed-rant was edited to include a note and hyperlinked article written by a firefighter on The Independent, June 20, 2017.