NY Times - March 26, 2011by JIM DWYER
The dead are marching over the hills behind us. Here comes Raymond Ott's grandfather, Andrew Ott, born around 1881 and dead nearly 40 years. "He was 6-foot-3 and filled the doorway," Mr. Ott said. "He signed up for the Navy when he was 13." He came back to New York to work as a firefighter with Engine 20 on Lafayette Street in Lower Manhattan. A century ago, he watched from near the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place as young women and men dropped from the sky, escaping fire on the ninth floor of the Triangle shirtwaist factory. Standing outside the building on Friday morning, young women, dressed as they would have been for work on March 25, 1911, sang out the names of the girls and the streets they had left early that morning, making their ways to the shirtwaist factory.
East Third Street, Ida Pearl, East Fourth Street, Violet Schochep, Morris Bernstein and Mary Herman.
Grandfather Ott would have seen them flickering through the sky, then dead on the sidewalks. Now their names ring through a soaring new oratorio, "From the Fire," being performed this weekend at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park. The music, the winning young singers and the projections of digital images, including a street map shown as the litany of names was sung, replaced the sepia-toned grief of the Triangle story with laughing teenage girls, sweating, gossiping and angry.
Commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire are finishing this weekend, and the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is not far behind. The temptation to cover your ears is strong. With the march of time, almost every calamity, no matter how fierce, becomes frayed. Raw grief reaches a limit, and people find their way to mental health, or not, by letting things go and getting on with life, or by slowly drowning in a moment of loss.
Almost as the last body was hitting the ground on Greene Street, the Triangle fire and its victims became charged symbols whose deaths were answered with reformed safety laws and stronger unions.
"You have to look at it, you have to change, whether it is building design or what's needed for the safety of the people," Mr. Ott, 56, said. As it happens, he went into firefighting, the same line of work as his grandfather, and on Sept. 11, 2001, he watched from West Street as people fell from another place ladders could not reach.
"At first, it looked like parts of the building were falling off," said Mr. Ott, a fire marshal.
In the two decades after the Triangle fire, the city building code was revised to require more exits in tall buildings; in the 1960s, just as the World Trade Center was being designed, those exit requirements were eased to increase the amount of rentable space.
Those exits might have helped on Sept. 11: most of the people who died in New York that day survived the crash of the planes, but had no way to get out, other than through the windows. After the attacks, a group of retired fire chiefs recommended that the building code increase the exit space in the next generation of tall buildings, but the proposal was rejected as too expensive.
Triangle had a redemptive legacy, though it took a few decades to emerge. Perhaps the day will come when it will be possible to say that about Sept. 11, which so far has given the world two wars that have cost a trillion dollars and the lives of many thousands of Americans, Iraqis and Afghans -- though not one inch of new exit space.
All these years later, the Triangle fire still has its revelations and reminders, many of which unfold in "From the Fire," which was composed by Elizabeth Swados and written by Cecilia Rubino and Paula Finn, and produced by the Lang Theater at the New School.
It takes a long time to let the dead become themselves. The oratorio brings the young women and men of Triangle back, memory as an act of resurrection.
"They weren't skeletons walking around; they were lovely, funny, bratty sometimes," Ms. Swados said in the program notes. "They were girls."
Anna Ardito, Jacob Bernstein, East 13th Street, Broome, Bedford, Bleecker and the Bowery, Commerce, Chrystie and Clinton; Four girls from one block on Cherry Street.