Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later


Sylvia Kimeldorf

Job: Tucker

8th floor

Interview: July 24, 1957

I remember the day of the fire very well. I was a tucker and I worked on the 8th floor where they had a number of special machines set up and I had just finished my work earlier in the day and I got my pay. I was always in a hurry as a youngster so I ran to the dressing room. I can remember as if it were yesterday that I had just put on my skirt and blouse and that I had my hat on, and that I put my jacket and pocketbook under my arm.

At that moment I heard a commotion in back of me in the shop. I heard loud screaming coming from the other end of the shop. I turned around and I could see the flames at the other end of the shop. I had a very dear girl friend by the name of Feibush and we worked together. She ran into the dressing room and grabbed me and began to pull me to the windows all the time while the fire was spreading quickly through the shop.

At the windows I saw how men grabbed chairs and began to break windows up in front. Somebody was trying to break the glass that was the top half of the door.

My friend was screaming all the time while she pulled me to the window.

The place was filling up with heavy black smoke and we were all choking. I think that the big barrel of oil in the corner was burning.

I was scared and she was pulling me to the window and suddenly I felt I was going in the wrong direction.

I think this thing that saved me was that I always had, even as a child, a great fear of height and I was afraid to go to the windows for that reason. Even now I don't like high places.

In the crush I was separated from my friend. She jumped to her death.

I guess what really saved my life was my impatience because I wanted to get out a little earlier, and my fear of height.

I ran back to the stairway on the Greene St. Side. Just as I got there with two others, Brown, the machinist, opened the door. The door opened inside and had a snap lock. Somebody grabbed me and another girl and pushed us through the door and hollered that we should run down and not to stop.

I think that the girl right in back of me had her hair singed by flames -- that's how close the fire was to us.

I don't remember how I got down that narrow staircase but I was cold, wet and hysterical. I was screaming all the time. When we came to the bottom I could not get out of the building. The firemen held us back in the doorway. The bodies were falling all around us and they were afraid to let us go out because we would be killed by the falling bodies.

I stood there with the other girls screaming until the men saw a chance for us to get across and I remember they let me across the street and took me into a Chinese importing house where they tried to quiet me down and gave me milk to drink. I could see through the window how the bodies were still falling and would hit the sidewalk with a bounce.

At that time I lived with my parents in Brooklyn. We had come from Rumania in 1901. I was 18 years old and had gone to work in the garment industry two years earlier and suddenly found that I was in the middle of the big 1909 strike of shirtwaist makers. I remember how I went to sell newspapers to raise money for the strikers.

My cousin, Morris Horowitz took me up to work at Triangle.

When I was able to get out of the store I began to run all the way to Second Street and Avenue "A" where my grandmother lived. My mother in Brooklyn had no telephone and I was afraid she would think something happened to me. My grandma took care of me.

Meanwhile my cousin was frantically looking for me even among the dead bodies.

I never went back to see the building. I didn't go to the funeral.

I was so sick from shock that I had to be sent away to the country to regain my strength. For weeks and weeks I got sick every time I thought of those girls standing on that ledge or reminded myself of the fire.

The Washington and Greene St. doors were always closed.

Up until the time of the fire I never saw the bosses. We dealt only with the foreman but sometime after the fire I remember I got a letter from the company asking me to come to their office. When I got there I was told that they were opening a new shop and if I had nothing against them I would be welcome to go to work for them.

Before I worked for the Triangle Co. I worked for Winter Co. on Wooster St.

I got paid by Triangle, $10 a week, flat rate, for six days a week, including Saturdays.

They had a real speed-up system so that when they gave you the goods, let's say 60 yds., they fixed the time it should lake to do the work.

When we left the shop we were searched. We had to open our bags to show what was in them. They even had a matron in the ladies room who would check to see how long you stayed in the ladies' room and if you had any material on you.

I never heard otherwise from the company. I lost my hat and fur piece in the fire but nobody ever tried to reimburse me for it.

The fire started on the cutting table on the Washington Pl. side. My machine was two rows away and there was no room to walk between the rows of the machines.

I was very lucky that I was in the dressing room when the fire broke out. I could see when I looked back at that time from the dressing room to where the lace runners worked, how the wicker baskets filled with the work, were already burning. I saw men throwing stuff on the fire trying to put it out.

I did not go to the fire escape because I did not know there was a fire escape.

I forget the name of the tall tucker who worked with us. I saw him a couple of weeks after the fire. He was allright but on that day of the fire he almost drowned in the cellar.