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Fire Sisters

“So, you got on at the factory?” Mama asked. “I didn’t think they would take you so young.”

“Rose knows the boss. It’s all girls there, she said.”

Mama dipped the last of the bread in her tea and fed the baby. “I don’t like to see you go out on the Sabbath, Sarah.”

“Rose will take care of me, Mother.”

The next morning, I stopped in front of the Asch Building and stared at the sign:  Triangle Waist Company. Rose pulled my arm. “Come on. We can’t be dawdling now. We got to talk to the boss.”
Mr. Grutivski stepped close and raised my chin, his beetle eyebrows lifted. “She’ll do. You have the fee?” Rose handed him a folded packet.  He nodded. “Put her on Row 8.”

We went up the steep winding stairs to the ninth floor, already crowded with women and girls. I smoothed my hair.  It was 6 am.

“Don’t worry. You’ll pay me back.” Rose hissed directions as we passed by rows of women, heads bent over their sewing at long crowded tables. She led me to a narrow aisle behind Row 8. 

“All you have to do is flip those spools out as they get used up and replace them. Don’t run out of thread. Be glad you’re not a sewer or a cutter. They’re paid by the piece. They’ll complain if they run out.” She pointed at the oily boards we stood on. “Be careful not to slip.” 

I could feel the noise with my feet as the machines thumped and the needles whirred. After awhile, my hands worked mechanically.  

I don’t know when the fire broke out. Someone was screaming. My eyes hurt, and I saw blue smoke.  Some of the women ran to the door. It was locked. They pushed and shouted, but the doors wouldn’t open. The flames flashed up the walls. Everyone was screaming.  A few women scrambled out the window to the fire escape. Others followed. The stairs crumpled and collapsed under their weight. 

Flames floated like a blue and yellow river over our heads. I couldn’t find Rose. I ran back and forth with the women.  The heat cracked my skin. 

Then I saw her, standing by the window, her white dress a flaming candle. We jumped together, holding hands, fire sisters.


NOTE: On March 25, 1911, a fire at the Triangle Waist Factory killed 146 people (mostly women) who had been locked in a large warehouse on the 9th floor. Firemen were helpless as the ladders on the fire trucks could only reach the 6th floor. The number of deaths shocked New Yorkers into supporting the first regulations for safe working conditions. I wrote this story to honor their history.

A “free commons” photo of the fire is available at Wikipedia:


Beth Camp writes historical fiction and quilts, each occupation its own challenge.


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