March 25, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of what has come to be known as Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a tragedy that claimed 146 victims. The scene of the fire was a factory building on the east side of Manhattan’s Washington Square. In the building at the time were hundreds of young women and children who toiled in the garment industry for long hours, short wages, and in oppressive conditions. The day was Shabbat, but even so, these Jewish immigrants were working for the pennies they need to survive. For the innumerable immigrants who flocked to America and resided in New York City, this was their livelihood. The company was the largest manufacturer of blouses in the city. Hundreds of pounds of cotton and tissue scraps fueled the fire that broke out that fateful day as the fire spread quickly through the top three floors. The employers assured that the workers would meet their quotas of garments by locking the doors. Unable to escape the flames, many jumped to their deaths form the ninth and tenth floors.
The fire department responded with horse-drawn fire engines from every direction. But they were ill-equipped to deal with such massive a fire and at such a high elevation. The onlookers were aghast and New York City was thrown into shock. The events of this day are familiar to me because I attended school at New York University’s Washington Square Campus where a plaque is affixed to the all of the building now serving as classrooms and study halls but was once the site of tragedy.
The fire itself was catastrophic but the response remains inspiring.
At the turn of the twentieth century New York City politics was controlled by a corrupt clique of politicians collectively known as Tammany Hall. The mayor was more a boss of illegal operations than the chief executive of the largest city in the United States. Charles F. Murphy ran the city from his private room in Delmonico’s restaurant. But he knew that public sentiment was shifting away from management that he had favoured to the workers that were exploited. Two massive strikes in 1909 and 1910, and now the great fire, impressed upon him the need to rethink. Murphy appointed an investigatory commission which, over the next three years, proposed and passed the most progressive set of workplace reforms the country had known. Out of Murphy’s commission came a list of personalities who would come to influence American politics for decades, bringing their commitment to the working man to the state of New York and ultimately to the White House.
Some still argue that Murphy, ever the pragmatist, shifted his position only to gain votes. And there is evidence to support this rather cynical view. But it is possible that Murphy, in that tragic moment one hundred years ago, was awakened from his slumber, to use Maimonides’ term for the purpose of blowing the shofar, and came to realize that concern for life trumps power and greed and that we all bear the responsibility of making the world safer and better. It may very well be an example of a classic case of true repentance.
And if it is, the lesson for us is powerful. If a once-corrupt politician like Murphy can come to see the light, so can we. But let us pray our realization will not depend on tragedy.