Witness to history

A powerful legacy touched by tragedy

It was the spark that led to the passage of the nation’s first worker safety laws.

The tragic deaths of 146 workers, most of them young women and teenagers, in the inferno that engulfed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village on March 25, 1911, helped galvanize the U.S. labor movement. When the last survivor of the fire, Rose Freedman, died at age 107 in 2001, her obituary made the front page of the New York Times.

To Dana Walden, chair of 20th Century Fox TV, the approaching 100th anniversary of the fire isn’t just a milestone in American history, as recounted in the “American Experience” docu “Triangle Fire,” set to air Feb. 28 on PBS; it’s a moment to reflect on the extraordinary life of the woman she called Grandma Rose.

“She was a funny, proud, independent, really strong woman who found herself at the center of an incredibly historic moment,” Walden says.

But Freedman never belabored her connection to history. It wasn’t until Walden was an adult that she understood that weight of her paternal grandmother’s experience.

After emigrating from Austria as a teenager, Freedman had been working as a seamstress at the factory for only few months when the fire broke out. The devastation was compounded by the fact that managers kept the factory doors locked during the day, ostensibly to prevent theft by the workers.

Amid the panic that ensued after a Triangle exec rushed in to unlock the door, Freedman made a split-second decision that saved her life. While other girls rushed down the stairs to their deaths, Freedman ran up a few flights to the management floors. Sure enough, firefighters were there rescuing the execs.

“She was such a smart cookie — she had a feeling that if anyone was going to survive the fire, it would be the executives,” Walden says.

For the rest of her days, Freedman had a zest for life that was fueled in part by her early brush with mortality. Walden considers herself fortunate to have grown up with two inspirational femme role models. Her maternal grandmother, Marie Moscovitch, was a pioneer in establishing animal- welfare rights in Vancouver.

“Long before it was fashionable, these were two women who had their own professional identities, and both felt very strongly that a woman’s place is wherever she wants to be,” Walden says.

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