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American Experience: Triangle Fire
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
March, 1911. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, located on a corner of Manhattan's Washington Square, was in many ways representative of the now infamous sweat shops that exploited young immigrants to the city. Poor wages, long hours, and unsafe working conditions had been protested months before by the largest work stoppage in New York history up to that time. While the strike made some gains, many problems persisted, and when a deadly fire broke out within the Triangle workshop, the death toll made the need for reform brutally real.

In this documentary for PBS, director producer Jamila Wignot, and executive producer Mark Samels examine the relationship between New York's social divisions, political corruption, the industrialists' quest for profit, the human rights of workers, and the emergence of the labor movement. Delving into the archives of survivor interviews, photographs, films, and written accounts, the narrative personalizes the struggle, aided by insightful commentary from historians. Most of the Triangle workers were young immigrant women wondering why they were deprived of their share of the American Dream. Extensive footage of the factory work rooms, and of the ruthless treatment of picketers, lead up to the fire itself, which broke out on March 25. Five hundred people occupied the factory that day, and while three quarters escaped, the plight of the victims left helpless is graphically presented. In 45 minutes, 146 people died because of safety violations, in spite of the efforts of fire personnel, which are also well documented. Not surprisingly, the tragedy prompted horror and outrage from the public, which had been well informed about workers' complaints in previous months, and which willingly contributed to relief efforts for the families left behind. Finally, the impact of the tragedy, immense public pressure for safety and labor reforms on the local, state, and federal levels, is covered.

Powerful and compelling.
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33 of 43 people found the following review helpful
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Do NOT buy this film thinking you'll get a complete overview of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire or Strikes. You won't.

I first learned about the Triangle *Fires* when I was ten years old. (The company had a history of suspicious fires in the years leading up to the tragedy -- almost always at the end of the busy season.) My father -- a member of *management* -- felt the Triangle was an important part of labor history. He said: "Remember the Triangle Fire, Kayla. If you work in a factory, always know where your exits are every moment of every day. If you feel a threat, don't wait. Go!" I was given a copy of Leon Stein's book about the Triangle Fire when I was relearning how to read after a brain injury. The voices of the men and women who survived the fire came alive again for me, because I already knew their names and their words from the First Edition. Their names, their stories of survival and of loss touched me deeply as a child and still do. As a former Union member and as an historian, I was very pleased that American Experience was doing an episode about the Triangle Strike and Fire.

And then, I watched the film. Words that *belonged* to actual people aren't credited except rarely and then only in the Closed Captioning. The narration speaks of immigrant women shirtwaist workers who banded together and went on strike for better working conditions and wages. (The film HAD to mention Clara Lemich, whose powerful speech helped begin the strike. It also mentioned the wealthy women who helped back the strikers. Money talks, one guesses.) The strikers themselves were beaten and horribly mistreated by paid-off police; and they stood firm. They struck for shorter working hours and better working conditions and workplace safety. They struck for *us* and to make our work lives better. (They did. But only after the Triangle Fire killed 146 of them. After the Triangle Fire, laws changed.) I was appalled by this so-called history of the Strike and Fire. There are few stories of the individual workers. Even beloved Mary Leventhal (Laventhal), who died on the Ninth Floor, goes nameless, except for the mention of how her body was identified. Her name is known; the dentist's name is known (Dr. J Zaharia); the name of the man who identified her is known (Joseph Flecher.) And yet this program chose to make her nameless. Why? It would have taken so little to make this a great piece of history -- and to give us Mary's story or any of the others whose names are known. They had names! They did NOT die in vain!

There is a wonderful website about the Fire maintained by Cornell University at [...]. There are survivor interviews there, waiting to be read and heard. Go there and learn the real stories of this Fire. Learn about the strike. Read Leon Stein's The Triangle Fire and Dave Von Drehle's Triangle: The Fire That Changed America -- both available here at amazon.com. But don't by this film expecting... history.

PS-- I did work in a factory; and there was a fire. I'm here because of Fire Drills and Fire Safety Laws that came because of Triangle Fire and via Union Strikes. I'm here because of the bravery of the Triangle Strikers and men and women like them. And I *still* look for the union label when I buy a coat, dress or blouse!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2012
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My daughter is working on her PhD in history and currently teaching at a university. She has found that nothing teaches history like seeing it. She teaches about working conditions and women and unions and found this video at the school library. She was impressed with the way this video shows the conditions and the circumstances involving all three areas of her program. I decided that this was a video that she was going to use constantly and to make sure that she didn't have to worry about if the library had it in or the quality of an overused video I would buy her her own copy for her library. Anyone who wants to see the struggles of the working woman and the role this tragedy played in the formation of unions needs to see this movie. For anyone just interested in history it is a real eye-opener and being so visual and documented it remains with the viewer.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2011
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Others write that this documentary covers little about the fire itself, and that is true. However, I think it does an excellent job of showing early labor practices, and the abuse of labor. The fire is used as an example of how little the owners cared about their workers. If you only want to learn about the fire, this may not be the story for you. If you are interested in labor practices in general, and in the abuse of labor, I highly recommend this documentary.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2012
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I used this DVD for the first time this school year and my students were very interested...always a plus! It included background info. about the big strike female factory workers held the year before the fire and showed how concessions the workers did not gain led to the huge number of deaths in the fire. This also led to discussions of unions today, union-busting being done in certain corporations, and "right to work" (it's a misnomer) legislation in many states today. Any time events from the past can be connected to the present, it becomes more real for students. Some of it was very moving: hearing from police officers (who had beaten these very same women during the strike) and firefighters with the actors' voices breaking with emotion, describe their feelings of helplessness as they watched women fall to their deaths, long hair aflame, some of my students had tears streaming down their own faces. We talked about the horrible choice some of those women made: to die in the fire or to jump to their deaths and compared it to the people who jumped to their deaths on September 11th. This DVD gave me the opportunity to have discussions with my students that would have been difficult to start without it. It was beautifully done. When my students see that we're going to watch a History Channel, A & E, or PBS DVD, they complain. The said they very much enjoyed this one and will have a better attitude about educational DVDs from now on.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2011
You might think any movie on this infamous workplace fire would be markedly biased toward the workers and against the owners. But this film presents a more realistic picture -- with many minutes devoted to documenting the owners facing truly cutthroat competition (there were 500 shirtwaist factories in NYC alone then) and being, in their words, "just one season away from bankruptcy." The film definitely portrays the business enterprise existing only because its two owners risked everything they had and even mortgaged their homes to build the Triangle factory. You are given the feeling that the business was there only because of the proprietors' extreme gamble, which by and large was true for just about every capitalistic enterprise in the late 1800s - early 1900s.

And the workers??? They probably would not have emigrated to the US at all if it were not for the existence of these factories. As bad as some of the sweatshops were (Triangle was considered the "cream" or "cherry" of the garment factories of the day in NYC), they did offer hard-working immigrants a step on the first rung of the ladder to the American Dream.

In other words, such factories were a blessing -- perhaps more of a blessing than a curse even despite their terrible deficiencies.

The other observation I have on this film is the tremendous role this one episode played in the US labor movement, labor laws, and factory regulations. I first learned of the Triangle fire in my US high school history text, where it was given one sentence. I did not know, until this PBS film, that Samuel Gompers himself got involved with these ladies in their strike, and that the Vanderbilt family supported them in their quest for better wages and shorter hours. From this documentary, one gets the feeling that the Triangle fire was perhaps the pivotal event in US labor history that led to real lasting reforms.

This is a really well done, riveting hour of viewing.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Unions have become a scourge to American industry and government - eg. helping bankrupt G.M. and Chrysler, as well as Detroit, Stockton, etc. However, this DVD shows the other side - how workers were driven unmercifully for unreasonable hours and a pittance for pay. And that was only the backdrop for the tragedy of the Triangle Fire that killed about 143 young people, driving many to jump to their deaths while the owners escaped - both with their lives and an insurance settlement as well. Fortunately reforms were undertaken and work has become far safer and more humane today. The 'bad news' is that once again businesses are dominating government, and again tightening a noose around American workers - this time via sending work to Mexico and Asia, lowering tax revenues and standards of living for millions of Americans. Incredibly the owners were acquitted of manslaughter, claiming they didn't know the alternative exit door had been locked to prevent garment theft; one was cited ($20 fine) two years later for locking another factory door. Fire department ladders were unable to reach above the 6th floor (fire was on 8th and 9th floors), there was no way to warn workers on the 9th floor. The elevator operators were heroic - running up and down as long as their equipment was still able. The building's architects were allowed to have only two stairwells, given that they added an outside fire escape - unfortunately, that collapses under the weight and reportedly poor maintenance.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2011
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After watching it (as on our PBS station Monday night), decided to order it. PBS does a good job of covering the long strike and the working conditions that led up to the fire (see Linda's excellent review above) in only an hour.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2013
I had heard about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire before, but never knew the details until I watched this American Experience presentation. The fire occurred in the heart on New York City in March 1911, and led to the implementation of new worker safety laws and better worker conditions. But that did little to comfort the families of the 146 who died in the fire, many of whom were young women.

The documentary gives a lot of background information about the garment industry at that time, and what it was like to work at Triangle. Much to my surprise I found out that it was one of the better factories to work at. Despite long hours and hard work, the building had large windows to let in sunlight and fresh air. Also, it was in a good location in Greenwich Village.

In the years prior to the fire labor strikes and protests against working conditions were quite frequent. While some shops gave in and allowed unions to form in their factories, Triangle resisted, arguing that fierce competition to make shirtwaists - the type of blouse women wore at that time - prevented them from improving working conditions.

The film shows how the fire started by accident and spread quickly, fueled by the scraps of clothing and fabric dust particles in the air. While quite a few people did escape, many were trapped by locked exit doors, a very slow elevator, and a fire escape that quickly crumbled when used. The fire department arrived quickly but their equipment could not reach the building's upper floors. The trapped employees either jumped to their deaths or were burned to death in the inferno.

My only complaint about the documentary is it drifts into a lot of history about union activity at the expense of discussing the victims of the fire in any detail. I was hoping to hear more about the individual victims. Nevertheless it's worth viewing at least once, and their are other resources available that provide additional information about the tragedy.
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13 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2011
I'll start by noting that I watched this video because I'm interested in fire history and have read about the Triangle Fire, which is an important episode in that history. This film, however, is mis-titled. It pays very little attention to the fire itself (coverage of this event starts 1/2 hour in and lasts about 10 minutes). The coverage of the fire is muddled at best: it seems that the producers didn't know a thing about fire science and didn't bother to find out.

I would respectfully differ with the reviewer who notes that "efforts of fire personnel ... are also well documented" There's a good period clip of a steam-powered fire engine, and the documentaries notes that the ladders weren't long enough to reach the fire. That's it. No details about how the fire was eventually extinguished. The video also fails to mention that the building was reasonably new and "fireproof" which may have been a reason for the complacency about fire safety.

One final issue: for a topic that is so heart-rendingly tragic, the film-makers manage to depersonalize the people who died. The film seems to quote some survivors of the fire, BUT given the horrific fire conditions they describe (flashover events with people bursting into flame before thier very eyes) the viewer wonders how they themselves lived to speak about their experience. Since these individuals are not given names, or full narratives, they don't seem quite real.

Yes, the labor history surrounding the Triangle Fire is worth studying - indeed, the impact of the fire can't be fully understoon without it. However, the producers seem to have known that calling it the "Triangle Labor Strike" (reflecting the actual content of the film) would not draw viewers.
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