Fire Haunts 93-Year-Old : Survivor of 1911 Triangle Factory Blaze Tries to Forget

Times Staff Writer

Seventy-four years later, Bessy Cohen still dreams of fires.

"It's so many years, I wish I could forget it," she said, recalling the March 25, 1911, blaze at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory in New York, where 146 garment workers died.

"I lay and cry and remember the faces," she said. "What hurts me is that I remember the faces. I can't forget."

Now 93, the West Hollywood resident is apparently one of the few living survivors of the fire, which has been called one of the country's worst industrial accidents.

She had been in the United States just three years when she went to work that Saturday.

"We ate lunch right on the windowsills," she recalled, "and I'll never forget that I said to one girl, 'What would happen if this place would be on fire?' Why it came to me, I do not know. And I forgot about it."

But what would happen was already public record. According to "The Triangle Fire," the definitive account of the blaze, Fire Chief Edward F. Croker had testified three months earlier that his department did not have the equipment to fight a blaze above the seventh story. Few of the factory buildings in the garment district were equipped with sprinklers or adequate fire escapes.

The workers, he said, were left with "absolutely not one fire protection, without any means of escape in case of fire."

His worst fears were realized at quitting time on March 25.

Mrs. Cohen, then Bessy Gabrilowitz, had just finished her nine-hour shift at a sewing machine. She remembers: "A man turned around at the window. He opened the window and he says, 'Bessy, it's a fire.' I got scared and nervous."

She put on her hat but decided to leave her coat in the cloak room, a move that may have saved her life. Some of her friends went for their coats--it had been a rainy day--but by the time they left the dressing room the flames had blocked their escape.

A crowd of women was pounding on the doors of the elevator shaft. A door to the adjacent stairs was locked, so Bessy Gabrilowitz ran across the room to the staircase next to the freight elevators, which were closed for the day.

"It was just like somebody would chase me," she said in an interview last week, her voice, still accented after more than 70 years in America, breaking with emotion. "Walk, go. So I left those girls crying. They were standing, and I started to go down."

When she reached the eighth floor, where the fire had started, a manager was standing in the doorway.

"His face was black as coal," she said. "He said, 'Save yourself, save yourself.' " Looking up, all she could see on the ninth floor was flames.

"And then in the hallway there was glass, so the glass (was) starting to fall." She sobbed. "You'll forgive me, I get emotional," she said.

"So I put the pocketbook on my head and I only thought about my parents. They'll never see me again. That's all I thought, was about that. And I started to run; (as) if somebody was in back, (saying) 'Run, run.' "

On the sidewalk, firemen led her away, but not before she saw an acquaintance fall to her death from the ninth-floor window. Dozens were forced to jump.

"She went out to the window. She fell. I could hear the thump. But somebody took me away."

Others died when a rickety fire escaped collapsed. For the young Russian immigrant, whose parents were still in the old country, the days that followed were a jumble of funerals and visits to a temporary morgue in an effort to identify the charred bodies.

New Yorkers who recognized her hat from newsreels and newspaper pictures crowded around her on the street to ask what happened.

Through the years, the memory of one particular friend, Dora Wolfovitch, remains as a burden of guilt.

Mrs. Cohen, who earned $3 a week before getting a 50-cent raise, had been urging Wolfovitch to ask for a similar increase just before the flames eached the ninth floor.

"My conscience bothers me all the time about this girl," she said. "You see, if she wouldn't have come over and asked me about the raise, she would have gone right down, but she went over to the boss to talk to him. That's all. I never saw her again. And for years and years, even when I think about it now, it bothers me. That's the way I felt."

After the fire, she went uptown to take a job in a dry goods store in Harlem. Married in 1916, she moved to Connecticut and New Jersey before following her son and daughter to California, where she lived in Boyle Heights for 39 years, working occasionally in a candy factory and as a practical nurse.

She moved recently to a county housing project in West Hollywood, where, according to her daughter, Sylvia Scott, she lives a "fiercely independent" life despite increasing deafness and a mugging in 1979.

Although the Triangle Co.'s owners were charged with manslaughter and found not guilty, the fire, one of the country's worst industrial accidents, led to sweeping legislative changes to improve workers' safety in New York, and later in other states.

"The key thing is it made people aware of the conditions under which people worked in the factories," said Dwight Burton, editor of Justice, a magazine published by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. "It focused the attention of the state and the country on the plight of the workers."

The union itself had only been in existence for 11 years at the time, but it was already firmly established, largely because of a strike that began at the Triangle Co. in September, 1909.

The walkout spread to the rest of the ladies' garment industry, and by the time the 13-week strike was over the union had signed contracts with 354 firms.

"It was ironic, because when the whole thing was over, the one shop they couldn't organize was Triangle," said Leon Stein, a retired editor of Justice and author of "The Triangle Fire."

He said he did not interview Mrs. Cohen for the book, but that her account jibed with the recollections of other survivors.

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