Phil-osophically Speaking – March 18, 2011


Does a Safer Society Come at the Price Of Progress?

The twin disasters of an earthquake and a tsunami have Japan in a desperate race against time to prevent large-scale radiation leaks in an unfolding nuclear crisis that has the world holding its breath. There is the usual chorus criticizing another nation’s lack of preparedness for a catastrophic event in addition to calls to shut down nuclear power plants altogether. These criticisms and demands are unrealistic since such things are bound to happen and they fail to take into account where the human race would be without technological advances.

With these thoughts racing through my mind, I walked down a cobblestone street in downtown Greenwich Village, where 100 years ago an immigrant population lived and worked. I arrived at the 10-story iron and steel building that was the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which once embodied the hope and futility of so many lives. A plaque on the building commemorates its landmark status where 146 workers, overwhelmingly young women and teenage girls, perished on March 25, 1911 either from the fire or from leaping out of the top floors of the building. The magnitude of the tragedy was so immense, its images so searing that four days later 350,000 people draped in black marched in a pageantry of sorrow never before seen in the great city.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was the largest blouse factory in the city. Women’s blouses were then known as shirtwaists and more than a thousand a day were produced in this neo-Renaissance building whose intersection oddly resembled the prow of an oceanliner. That day the upper three floors stuttered and hummed with a veritable symphony of sewing machines mass producing the latest styles of the day. It was a brisk spring day when at 4:40 p.m., just before closing time, a burning smell and then fire was detected. Smoking was not allowed in the factory but transgressions were widespread and frequent. The fire most likely started from a match or a lit cigarette butt thrown in a bin filled with scraps of highly flammable material, paper and cotton, that when ignited in an oxygenated environment turned into a virtual firebomb.

Within minutes the flames were out of control. With the floor made of combustible wood, without firewalls, fire doors or automatic sprinklers it was a biosphere ripe for disaster. Fear … panic … pandemonium as workers stampeded the stairways, frantically wrestled with locked doors (locked to prevent theft) and stormed en masse onto a fire escape that was a pitiful, poorly anchored travesty whose backbone broke under the weight sending scores of workers plummeting to their death more than an 100 feet below.

 Fire whistles … the clanging of bells … horse-drawn fire wagons speeding to the fire become a blur of sights and sounds amid the swirling chaos. It was all too little and too late: The ladders could not reach the upper floors of these newly constructed high-rises, neither could the hoses. Trapped by the flames, the workers began to jump into fire safety nets that weren’t strong enough to hold human bodies hurtling downward from such heights. Soon others began to jump, like “flaming rockets” one recalled, with “clothing and hair ablaze.” It was the sight and thudding sound of living bodies hitting the stone pavement that was most shattering to the helpless bystanders. It had a maddening effect on those who watched helplessly below: Women became hysterical; men wept and, according to one report hurled themselves against the police lines in paroxysms of frenzy — all to no avail.

The tragic events of that day are beyond the pale of any living memory but the horror of that half-hour is seared into the social consciousness of the nation. Almost all the 146 victims were women and all but three were Jewish and Italian immigrants who supplied the garment industry with cheap labor. Those who had not leapt to their deaths were discovered melted beyond recognition from the extreme temperatures. Many of these young women were engaged to be married until this swell of female pulchritude was reduced, in 30 frightful minutes, to a pile of charred rosebuds. It would be the worst workplace disaster in NYC history until one blue-skied morning two jetliners dripping with fuel murderously plowed headfirst into the Towers.

The burnt, broken bodies of these young women would ignite a great wave of reform promoting and mandating workplace safety. The spirit of progressivism wafted like a melancholic dirge above the silent ashes of Triangle Square propelling reform-minded Al Smith to Governor of New York and Frances Perkins, who witnessed the fire, into a lifelong social reformer who became the first female cabinet member in U.S. history under FDR. Things changed for the better with the installation of firewalls as well as fire doors that opened outward; illuminated red-lettering exit signs and automatic sprinklers for high rises became a matter of law. It is easy to view these much-needed reforms as a triumph of urban liberalism and the labor movement but how much of this success can really be ascribed to these political idealists.

Dickensian work conditions in America were almost always the product of an expanding economy where the lower echelon, for a generation or so, worked long hours in harsh environments. The confluence of high rises and the inundation of immigrants occurred rapidly, without premeditation or forethought, the upshot being hazardous workplace conditions that in retrospect appear damning. Because of the thriving nature of capitalism, social reforms are always playing catch-up to technological advances. The owners of the factory did not want a fire that destroyed their business, put them on trial for homicidal negligence and made them the objects of public scorn. But at the time the no-smoking rule and the red pails of water next to cutters’ tables were thought sufficient to check a spreading fire. Nor were municipal emergency services alert to public safety measures as evidenced by inadequate building codes and ladders that did not reach beyond the seventh floor at a time when city buildings were becoming ever taller.

A year later, 1523 lives were lost when the unsinkable Titanic sank after colliding with an iceberg. Receiving as many as eight ice warnings, the Titanic not only failed to reduce its speed it also carried too few lifeboats. With 43 years of experience, its skipper Captain Edward Smith was considered the best navigator in the Atlantic and had never been involved in a serious incident at sea. But technology passed him by. He knew ships but not enough about these new gigantic floating Xanadus. In the two inquests held after the sinking virtually no maritime expert blamed Smith for the actions he took that day. No oceanliner, after all, had ever been sunk by an iceberg and it was believed that on a clear night the lookouts would be able to spot a berg in more than enough time to avoid it. Nor was the White Line Company held accountable for too few lifeboats or not requiring lifeboat drills since according to the Board of Trade they had more than enough of the first and the latter was not required. So actions that would have been criminally negligent after the accident were within the norm before it.

In the 1960s, deaths on our highways far exceeded the battlefield deaths in the jungles of Vietnam but it was not until 1985 when wearing seatbelts became a state law in New York and the mandatory installation of airbags still years later. Disasters are inevitable, as we see in Japan, and safety should be paramount but not to the extent that we forego progress and avoid risks. The paradox is that the safer our society becomes the more risk adverse we become. It clearly makes sense not to build a nuclear power plant on fault lines but to make the leap that they should not be built at all is as self-defeating as to have said 100 years ago that high rises must never be built again. We should learn from these tragedies, remember those who were lost and move cautiously but intrepidly into the future.


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