A horrific fire in New York is still remembered today because of the safety regulations it inspired, writes Laura Waddell, while Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to wear a green tie in memory of the Grenfell Tower fire’s victims produced jeers from Conservative MPs – until they were rebuked by Theresa May.
The fate of politicians is rarely the important story, but it certainly gets in the way. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent comments on Grenfell, speculating about having the ‘common sense’ to ignore advice from the fire brigade unlike, presumably, those who perished, were deservedly criticised.
‘Gaffe,’ a word meaning an unintentional act or error causing embarassment, became the dominant summary in much news media. But the word is nowhere near appropriate, not least because it ascribes benevolence to its subject, and the remarks were both callous and cruel. The presumption of intellectual superiority is chilling, with echoes of Hillsborough critics. But demonising the vulnerable of society with a focus on perceived personal failings fits snugly within wider conservative ideology under which the gap between rich and poor has widened.
Rees-Mogg’s remarks came just days after the release of a report critical of the fire service’s actions in 2017. In the same week, Corbyn’s green tie in Westminster, a symbol of Grenfell rememberance, was jeered by Conservative MPs before they were rebuked by their own Theresa May. So little time has passed since the tragedy. How could they not reconise the gesture? How is its meaning being squandered on boorish bravado?
Among the fire department are concerns a narrative is forming which moves responsibility away from the issues of cladding, safety renovation, and the subject of complaints residents had prior to the tragedy. Combustible cladding like that used on Grenfell has yet to be removed from many other tower blocks, despite a mid-2020 deadline.
Attempts to reform fire safety laws are ongoing. In the meantime, residents in similar buildings must live with the stress. Taking a look at history shows where momentum around Grenfell has the potential to go, if we don’t squander it.
Fire escape collapsed
On the Saturday afternoon of March 25th, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, caught fire just as workers’ shifts were ending.
Nobody knows what caused the fire, although there are several theories. It could have been a rogue cigarette snuck in by one of the fabric cutters, or it could have been sparks from the machinery. There had also been a history of arson and insurance fraud in the garment industry in that area, but the owners were in the building that day with their children.
No matter what caused the fire, it soon took off, blazing through the 8th floor, which was packed full of highly flammable textiles, and rising to the 9th and 10th. Workers on the 8th floor telephoned up to the 10th, but those on the 9th, without alarms or telephones, were caught off guard. Lax building regulations had allowed such factories to spring up in unsuitable buildings, but that was soon to change.
By the time a passer-by alerted the authorities, spotting smoke emerging from the 8th floor, workers were trying to escape. Some, including the owners, managed to get up to the roof in the available elevators – not something advised today – where they waited in safety, but soon the elevators were unable to cope with the warping effects of the heat and were forced to stop.
So much pressure was put on the iron fire escape that it snapped and fell away from the building with 20 workers on it. Running out of options to escape the flames, some jumped into the elevator shafts, attempting to climb the cables, and others jumped from the windows, 100 feet to the ground.
It transpired that doors had been locked, which trapped many workers inside. The building had fire escapes, but it was regular habit to lock the doors as a theft preventative, with women’s purses being checked on the way out to prevent workers from stealing supplies. (This checking still happens in many retail jobs today.)
Acquitted of manslaughter
In all, 146 people died in the Shirtwaist factory fire. 123 women and girls, and 23 men. The oldest was 46, and the youngest were 14. Many were recent immigrants with Italian and Jewish backgrounds.
Saturday was overtime after a long week of work, and the fire had broken out at the end of the working day when they’d have been thinking of journeying home. Over 100,000 people joined in remembrance marches for them.
The two owners who survived on the roof faced trial for manslaughter, but were acquitted. The civil suit which followed did demand they pay out to plaintiffs, but the sum was smaller than the overall insurance payouts. Just a couple of years later, one of the owners was found guilty of locking the doors of another factory during working hours. He was fined the minimum penalty of $20; the judge apologised for its harshness.
The event, one of the deadliest fires the city ever saw, as well as the USA as a whole, had a striking and lasting impact. It is credited as the catalyst for a slate of workers’ rights reforms and health and safety responsibilities for building owners.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, union organising swelled in numbers. Walkouts and strikes became more common. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was focused on the work done largely by working-class women which wasn’t always reflected in other unions or other textiles organisations, and they used the wider opportunities for visibility to make this known. A raft of fire-safety investigations culminated in changes to laws pertaining to doorways, escape routes, and alarms. Even today, the fire is a frequent reference for rights and reform, with labour movement celebrations on its centenary, and was recently evoked by Elizabeth Warren on the presidential nominee campaign trail.
In reading about this striking moment in American history, and the changes that followed, I am left wondering what will become of the Grenfell momentum. Will society, in 100 years, remember the tragedy and be able to point to changes that it inspired, changes that made life better and habitation more secure for those with less capital? Perhaps only if we stay focused on what’s at stake – and it isn’t Jacob Rees-Mogg’s reputation.