Journalist analyzes deadly fire

The Daily Pennsylvanian
March 24, 2005

It took place almost a century ago and lasted only a few minutes.

Coinciding with the 94th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, students gathered to hear David Von Drehle talk about the tragedy and its impact.

Calling the Triangle disaster the "fire that changed America," the Washington Post senior writer spoke at the Kelly Writers House about his latest book, Triangle.

The book details the 1911 textile factory fire that took 146 lives, mostly those of teenage, female Jewish immigrants. Victims leapt 12 stories to their deaths to avoid the flames; some were impaled as a result of their fall.

Von Drehle meticulously explained the event, saying, "It is impossible to understand the historical context without understanding the moment."

He linked these details to the harsh labor conditions which caused the tragedy. The workers, he said, were trapped because doors were locked and fire hoses were not working.

However, he added that the workers' sacrifice has been woven into our lives, as the incident sparked wide-ranging reforms in worker safety and labor regulations, many of which remain today.

Von Drehle was introduced as a "writer's writer and a reporter's reporter" by former Washington Post colleague Paul Hendrickson, who is now a member of Penn's creative writing faculty.

"He was a really good speaker and storyteller," College sophomore Rachel Friedman said.

She had read parts of Von Drehle's book for a creative writing class and soon became engrossed with it.

"It is a really good book. ... It is very well written," she added.

Von Drehle became interested in this topic when he was a journalist for The Miami Herald.

"It was not a family story for me," he said.

Rather, he learned about it while covering a story about a fire in the Bronx, N.Y., which coincidentally took place on the Triangle fire's 79th anniversary.

College junior April Anderson found the talk "inspirational."

"This was a story I grew up with. My great-grandmother was a German immigrant who lived just a few blocks away from the building when she was a kid," she said.