New York News

Memorial Stands to ‘Never Forget the 146’ Killed in NYC Sweatshop Blaze

“Shirtwaist” replicas flutter in the breeze on Oct. 11 during the unveiling of a memorial for the 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911. The memorial wraps the exterior of the “Brown Building” where the tragedy occurred. Formerly the “Asch Building,” it is now on the NYU Campus. (Photo: Bill Miller)

GREENWICH VILLAGE — Francesca Salemi’s clothes and hair ignited as flames swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911.

Certain she was about to die, Francesca, 19, prayed, said Lou Miano, her great-grand nephew.

He shared her story Oct. 11 after the unveiling of a memorial for the 146 women, girls, and a few men who perished in the fire. Most were European immigrants — 102 Jews, two Protestants, and 42 Catholics.

Miano told how Francesca, swathed in panic, smoke, and flames, made a sacred vow to the Blessed Mother that if she survived, she would devote her life to God.

It’s unclear how Francesca made it to the roof, but she did, and from there she was rescued, Miano said.

“Two years later,” he said, “she took first vows to become a nun — Sister Mary Albertina of the Pallottine Sisters in New Jersey.

She remained with the sisters until her death in 1941.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul attended the event, organized by the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. It not only honored the victims, but also fire-safety standards — developed in the wake of the disaster — that still protect people today.

Miano has worked as a production engineer for DeSales Media Group, the ministry that produces The Tablet, on shows such as “City of Churches.”

He said Francesca was one of the “Cherry Street Girls” — four young immigrants from Cerda, Sicily, who worked together at the factory.

Francesca was the only survivor. The fire killed her older sister, Santina Salemi, 24, and their cousin, Rose Cirrito, 18, plus family friend Josie Del Castillo, who was 20.

Their homes on Cherry Street were within walking distance from their factory jobs in the Asch Building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village.

The Triangle Shirtwaist production lines filled the building’s eighth and ninth floors, while offices were on the 10th — the top floor.

The building still stands. Today it’s called the “Brown Building,” and belongs to New York University.

The factory produced the fashionable “shirtwaist” tops popularized by well-to-do-women of the time.

But, Miano said, “sweatshop” conditions persisted on the eighth and ninth floors. Many of the workers wanted to organize to get worker protections through a labor union.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911 claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, but also paved the way for fire safety standards still in use today. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The company’s owners resisted, and reportedly locked doors to keep union organizers from meeting workers in the factory.

The fast-moving fire erupted when a smoldering cigarette or match ignited scraps of cloth.

“It could have been prevented,” Miano said. “But whether the doors were locked, or stuck, there were no fire sprinklers. These girls were doomed.”

The memorial, bearing the victims’ names and a description of the disaster, wraps the corner of the building.

Hochul, during the unveiling, said she was proud to help honor the victims of this “horrific inferno.”

“These were little girls,” she said, “young people who came here with their parents in search of the American dream.”

The governor mentioned a 14-year-old worker, “little Rosa.”

“She was killed,” Hochul said, “because no one would spend the money to have an escape for these people, knowing that there were dangers that lurk within. We say never again.”

Another 14-year-old girl died in the fire — Rosarea Maltese, an aunt of former State Sen. Serphin Maltese. She was one of two of his aunts lost in the fire whom he never knew. The other was Lucia, 20.

Likewise, Maltese, a lawyer, never met their mother, his grandmother, 39-year-old Caterina Maltese, also lost in the fire.

The former Republican senator, 90, was born 22 years after the notorious blaze.

But he did know his grandfather, Serafino Maltese, who grieved his wife and daughters in silence while leaning on his Catholic faith.

The bootmaker, who later owned a clubhouse for Italian businessmen and immigrants, lit candles every day for his fire victims.

He also mourned another daughter, Maria, who was 4 when she died of illness at the Ellis Island Hospital, having just completed the family’s 18-day voyage from Italy.

Serphin Maltese, chairman of the board for Christ the King High School in Middle Village, said everyone in his Italian neighborhood knew someone who lived through the deadly fire’s aftermath.

He recalled how “little old ladies” every day wore only black, from head to toe, in perpetual mourning. It was common knowledge that many of these women had lost loved ones at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

“It was universal mourning,” Maltese said of his grandfather’s generation. “They never got over it.”

World War II brought a new era for the neighborhood, with scores of newcomers from across the globe, Maltese said.

“We became more Americanized,” he added. “The little old ladies disappeared.”

The Maltese family quickly identified the remains of Lucia and Rosarea, who were found together in a burnt-out restroom.

Still, it took nearly a month more before Serafino identified his wife by the markings on her wedding ring.

The widower raised his sons Paul — the former senator’s father — and Vito on his own.

Maltese praised the Remember the Triangle Coalition under the leadership of Dr. Mary Anne Trasciatti, for creating the memorial so that the victims’ stories would not slip into obscurity.

Students from Christ the King and Middle Village Preparatory School also attended the unveiling. They wore black T-shirts with “Never Forget the 146” in gold lettering.

They distributed a 20-page “newspaper” that they produced with interviews of Maltese, biographies, poetry, and other content.

Alannah Fabry, 17, a senior from Christ the King, said it would be impossible for her to forget the tragedy.

“These kids were my age,” said Fabry, who is from Rockaway Beach. “That could have been anyone in my class. Some of them were even younger than us.

Remove featured image“So my heart is with everyone who was involved, and all the families that lost someone during that time.”

One thought on “Memorial Stands to ‘Never Forget the 146’ Killed in NYC Sweatshop Blaze

  1. Another great article from Senior Reporter Bill Miller! He is a great historical detailed writer. Former Senator Serphin Malitese and I are not only Manhattan College alumni but Alpha Phi Delta National Italian Heritage Fraternity and friend. Thanks for posting this.