By  on March 27, 2011

NEW YORK — Thousands braved a chilly March wind Friday afternoon to commemorate the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

A stage was set up in front of the building on Washington Place and Greene Street, and bunting was draped on the eighth floor, the site of the blaze that killed 146 garment workers on March 25, 1911.

Shirtwaist blouses on sticks with victims’ names fluttered in the wind and families of the victimswore pins with photographs of their ancestors who died in the fire.

The centennial event drew politicians from throughout the state of New York as well as U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who said that when she was invited to attend the ceremony last year, she immediately agreed. Calling the tragedy an “awakening of the consciousness of America,” she said it also served to shed light on the “wretched working conditions” that plagued the country at that time and continue in some form even today. “They are 146 reminders that we could and should do better,” she said, pointing to other recent fatalities that have occurred in coal mines, on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and in other workplaces.

Solis said that it is this country’s duty to “always protect our most vulnerable workers” and “ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to achieve the middle class."

Her sentiments were echoed by a large contingent of speakers at the event, which was presided over by Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United/SEIU, the union that represents the garment and textile industry, who said the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers were “killed by the greed of their bosses” and for attempting to organize a union in the factory and push for safer working conditions. The afternoon had a lot of the earmarks of a union rally, with leaders from a variety of industries taking to the mic during the two-and-a-half-hour event and being cheered on by their workers proudly waving union banners.

New York Senator Charles Schumer called the deaths of the workers, mainly Jewish and Italian immigrant women, a “jarring drop-kick to the American consciousness” that “awoke a nation. The phoenix that rose out of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a clarion call to action,” he said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, raising his voice to be heard over the heckling of the crowd of mainly union workers, said that “sometimes sorrow brings out the strength of a community.”

The event also drew former Mayor David Dinkins, embattled Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, Representative Jerrold Nadler, and members of the City Council. Activist and actor Danny Glover also spoke at the event.

President Barack Obama issued a proclamation to commemorate the day, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s resolution to name March 21–25 the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Remembrance Week was passed unanimously by Congress.

The ceremony concluded when the New York City Fire Department raised the ladder from a fire truck to the sixth floor of the building, the highest point it could reach in 1911, although the fire was on floors eight to 10. Family members, New York City school children and workers read the names of each victim and lay a flower for each as a bell tolled. And at 4:45 p.m., churches, schools and firehouses across the city and the country rang their bells to commemorate the time the first alarm was sounded in the fire that changed the fabric of American industry forever.

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