Daphne Pinkerson, Director of HBO's "Triangle: Remembering The Fire"

7 years ago
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When visiting my aunt in Washington Square, I can’t count the number of times I’ve passed where the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire occurred, unaware the building still existed in the NYU sprawl. It’s strange how certain events make it into schoolbooks, others disappearing into thin air. One hundred years later, Daphne Pinkerson’s film Triangle: Remembering the Fire, tells the personal stories of those affected by the tragedy that changed US worker’s rights forever.

Daphne and I spoke by phone the day after the HBO premiere for Triangle, which airs on HBO Monday, March 21st (9PM ET/PT).

An Emmy Award-winning documentarian, she received NARAL’s Courageous Advocate Award for Soldiers in the Army of God. I knew her films Heir to an Execution and Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags (which, coincidentally, I wrote about here). With longtime producing partner Marc Levin, Triangle is her 12th HBO project.

The horrific tragedy, weeks after the first International Women’s Day, has been told in other films, including hers (Schmatta). “They’re all really, really good but nobody was telling the stories from the family’s point of view…it was always experts, authors, historians.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of HBO

Firefighter Ray Ott imagined his experience arriving at the scene on 9/11 similar to his grandfather’s, one of the first responders at Triangle -- helpless as fire ladders couldn’t reach the ninth floor, as the fire escape collapsed and nets failed.

Until 9/11, it was the most devastating workplace disaster in New York history.

18 minutes. 146 lives.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of HBO

One particular victim inspired the film. Her name was Celia Gitlin. She’d been in the US eight months. And she would never know her great niece, the champion of documentary filmmaking, HBO’s Sheila Nevins.

TRIANGLE: REMEMBERING THE FIRE: Celia Gitlin Death Certificate | Photo Credit: Courtesy of HBO


Nevins always thought her great aunt was in the factory that day. While making Schmatta, historian Michael Hirsch located her death certificate. Gitlin, age 17, died in the fire. (Read Nivens’s incredible letter to her aunt, here.)

As Daphne learned, many families had few details. “Some of them would only mention it on March 25th. Once a year.” Gathering photos for the film, “little snapshots that were passed down through generations,” one man found the only photo of his relative “in his grandfather’s wallet in the attic.” He’d carried it with him his whole life.

Daphne found that the trauma went beyond victim’s families to all who witnessed the event. “As [Frances] Perkins said, [there was] this collective feeling of guilt.”

The rainy day six unidentifiable victims were buried, 120,000 marched. 300,000 stood in support. The city a sea of umbrellas.

In the short film Unidentified, available on HBO On Demand and DVD release this fall, Hirsch solves the mystery of the six. After 100 years, finally, a complete list of those who died.

Daphne describes this as an “incredible hidden history” beginning in 1909, with “the first uprising of women in this country” as 20,000 shirtwaist workers went on strike. Unlike upper middle class suffragettes, these women were predominantly Jewish immigrants; many too young to cast a ballot even if they’d had the vote. Many companies met union demands for better wages and working conditions. Triangle was not one of them.

“[Triangle] was really intended as a commemoration film,” Daphne explains, but while making it, the West Virginia mining disaster and the BP spill occurred. “We were just dumbfounded.”

Labor historian Leigh Benin reminds us, “If people want to know what deregulated industry would look like, look at the bodies on the sidewalk outside the Triangle building.” Benin’s cousin, Rosie Oringer, jumped to her death that day. She was 19.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of HBO


Susan Harris, granddaughter of Triangle co-owner Max Blanck, is conflicted. While relieved he didn’t go to prison, she admits “if my daughter had died in the fire and he hadn’t been my grandfather, I probably would have shot him.”

Harris collected vintage shirtwaists, cut them into squares and sent them to the families of victims to embroider. They unveiled the squares of delicate, aged linen at the film’s premiere. Perhaps amongst them there was a shirtwaist made in her grandfather’s factory, assembled in some way -- from pattern to buttonholes -- by someone lost in the fire.

Daphne and Marc’s next HBO project follows the “so-called 99ers” struggling after the financial collapse. “They did everything they were supposed to do to have the American Dream.”

Again, Daphne is telling a story that could easily be written out of history. “These people were being forgotten,” she says. “It’s like the last six unidentified…there’s nothing worse than not being recognized.”

On March 25th, events across the country commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle tragedy. Take part from wherever you are, at 4:45PM ET, as bells ring to mark the moment the fire began. I loved Daphne’s idea: Set an alarm to ring on your cellphone. And in that moment, with that chime, remember the fire.