The item in “The Time Machine” of your February/March issue about the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire stirred vivid, long-submerged memories. Fortunately no members of my family were victims of that tragic event, but my grandfather, Dr. George M. Price, who had come here from Russia in the 188Os, was directly involved in the immediate and long-term consequences. It must have been well before my teens when my mother first told me about the fire, the young girls trapped by the sealed exits and jumping to their deaths. She went on to describe my grandfather’s work with the state Factory Investigation Commission, where he helped determine the causes of the fire and its aftermath, and studied how to prevent them from recurring. Later, in my second-term high school English course, we were asked to play reporter, interviewing a family member. I chose my grandfather, who filled in details about the crowded aisles and overflowing bins mentioned in your article.
One outcome of the investigation by the state commission was the Fire Drill Law of 1912, which called for the installation of sprinkler systems and required drills in all shops having twenty-five or more workers above the ground floor. To be sure, fires still occurred and do so today, but to the best of my imperfect recollection, nothing since has approached the catastrophe at the Asch Building on March 25, 1911.
A few years later, my grandfather published a work entitled Modern Factory , in which he said: “The problem of eliminating occupational diseases and preventing human waste caused by industrial poisons, gases and fumes is one of the most important tasks of the age, and is closely interwoven with the general subject of the conservation of human resources. The crux of the problem is not whether we shall have industry with disease and poisons, or no industry at all. It is rather whether we shall allow industry to take its annual toll of human life…or whether we shall insist that industry must be free from all dangers, hazards and risks, and subordinate production and output to the weal of the human factor in industry.”
O temporal O mores! Reading news accounts of Three Mile Island, accidents at Kerr-McGee, acid rain, et cetera, one wonders how greatly technology and regulation have improved our lot in the intervening three-quarters of a century.