Sadie Hershy, 89, walked away from the television set Tuesday night soon after the beginning of the movie about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire that killed 146 garment workers. "People watch who didn't see the real thing," she said.
Hershy is one of the last survivors of the fire that sent 63 workers leaping to their deaths when they discovered that some doors not blocked by fire had been locked -- apparently to prevent immigrant employes from stealing cloth or lace.
Now, she remembers vividly the fire that spawned factory safety reform and breathed life into the fledgling garment workers union, and she was distraught over the television portrayal of the tragic event.
"That picture isn't what I know," Hershy said as two of the movie seamstresses talked while working at their sewing machines. "We weren't allowed to talk like that. It was a slavedriving place," she said.
After about 40 minutes, Hershy refused to continue watching the fictionalized version of the March 25, 1911, fire in New York City. "It's phony," she said. "There's nothing to watch... and my eyes were so cried out from when the paper came and said this was going to be on." With that, she left the TV room of the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington, in Rockville, where she lives.
"All the young beautiful young people killed," she began with her memories, in an accent still tinged with her native Hungary. "One couple was engaged. He was studying to be a doctor. A few weeks later he was supposed to retire, go to school full time. They jumped from the ninth floor because they couldn't get down."
Almost 68 years after the event she still remembers the white batiste blouse she wore, the new coat paid for bit by bit, the $12 weekly pay she had received minutes before the fire broke out.
It was near 4:45 p.m., quitting time on Saturday at the factory where Hershy, then 21, worked as "a tucker," running big bolts of material through a machine 60 hours a week to make tiny tucks.
"I had to go over to the cutter's table. I put something down. I saw a little smoke," Hershy recalled in her room Tuesday night.
"I said, 'Mr. Bernstein, Mr. Bernstein, I see smoke.' He took a bucket of water and spilled it and when he did that, such a flame shot up, it was terrible," Hershy said, motioning toward the ceiling with her delicate arms.
Hershy remembers two barrels of oil, used for machinery, catching fire near the eighth-floor entrance to the elevators and door the seamstresses used. A guard normally was posted there to check their purses as they left, because the owners "were afraid someone would take a little cotton, a little bit of lace" Hershy said.
On the other side of the building was the door to the stairway "the dignitaries used, the buyers. They wouldn't let us use it. But we went there. It was locked. We waited and banged and screamed.
"Finally, a little girl who worked next to me, a sweet little Italian girl, Marie, said 'Sadie, let's jump.' I said, 'No, Marie, Brown will come and open the door.' I tried to calm her, but she went to a window away from me and jumped."
Louis Brown, a machinist at the factory, did come and open the door, and Hershy, dazed and bruised, stumbled in a crush of bodies down the stairs. She was one of approximately 400, according to various accounts, who fled on stairways, in crammed elevators or over a precarious roof-to-roof ladder to a neighboring building. Some found safety down the fire escape, but it finally collapsed, flinging bodies to the street.
Leon Stein, former editor of the International Ladies Garment Workers' newspaper and author of a book on the Triangle fire, said the building, though modern, had no sprinklers.
"What it did have were spiral staircases... doors that opened the wrong way, opening inward instead of out, and an inadequate fire escape," Stein said. "There was more concern to protect the sewing machines than the workers," he added.
Triangle's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were tried on manslaughter charges and acquitted.
But the blaze "dramatized the garment workers' plight..., and there was outrage throughout the country that these young women should be locked into such places to work," according to Stein. The disaster also spurred the creation of a commission, which formulated legislation to make factories safer.
For her part, Hershy blames no one for what happened. "I can't blame because I'm not positive. I saw with my own eyes, but even I don't know how it happened."