Century Later, Triangle Fire Recalled

Newsday - March 21, 2011

by KRISTEN CALVANO AND AND DEBORAH S. MORRIS

Ray Ott of Copiague remembers sitting on his grandfather's lap, hearing tales about his days as a New York City firefighter. Those stories included one about a horrific fire at a New York City factory. Almost a century after that infamous Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, in an eerily similar role, Ott would experience the tragedy of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Like his grandfather before him, Ott was at the scene to help recover the dead.

Ray Ott, 56, was one of the first to respond to a disaster in lower Manhattan that would serve as a catalyst for change. And like his grandfather, Andrew Ott, it was Ott's responsibility in his role as a New York City firefighter to process the scene and track the number of individuals who had jumped to their deaths from a high-rise building in an effort to escape intense flames.

"I was at 9/11 watching the people jump," Ott says in an HBO special to air Monday night at 9 p.m. to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle shirtwaist fire on March 25, 1911, which caused the deaths of 146 garment workers. "It would be like one, two, three people would jump out. It must have been very similar to what my grandfather saw that day."

Ott's testimony is part of a documentary titled "Triangle: Remembering the Fire." It includes interviews with experts and victims' families, each with a unique account of that day.

Filmmakers Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson focus on what Triangle employees had to endure and how such a disaster could have been avoided.

"Reading so many horrendous accounts was hard," Pinkerson said. "You question why this happened."

In an interview last week, Ott recalled preparing to leave work for the day on Sept. 11, at Fort Totten in Bayside, Queens. "I put the news on and I see a plane hit the World Trade Center," he said. He rushed to the scene and remembers lying down on his stomach in the ash-filled street adjacent to the Twin Towers.

"The ground was rumbling," said Ott, a New York City fire marshal. "People started to stomp all over me. Everything was black and white."

He then saw debris falling from the buildings.

"I thought they were pieces from the buildings falling," Ott said, "but I learned they were people."

Ninety years earlier, Ott said his grandfather, a first responder, witnessed a similar scene where victims were jumping from the Triangle shirtwaist factory, at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street.

While the cause of the fire was never determined definitively, most believe it was due to a lit cigarette thrown carelessly into the fabric scraps and paper patterns.

The workers would work in the top three floors of the new 10-story building seven days a week, for little pay making the popular shirtwaist, a high-neck blouse.

At the factory there had never been any fire drills, there were no sprinklers, and one of the exits was locked to force workers to leave through one door so their pocketbooks could be checked as they left. The other door was blocked by flames, leaving as an exit a 12-passenger elevator, a fire escape and the roof.

The fire led to reforms of poor working conditions in factories, fire safety in buildings, hours worked and wages.