Tuesday, April 18, 2006

In rememberance of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

One hundred years ago today, the city of San Francisco crumbled and burned to the ground. An estimated 3,000 people died and several thousand more were left homeless. Chalk it up to the tenacity of a great city that just 3 years later, nearly 20,000 new buildings had been erected on the rubble.


Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
by Robert Philips


I, Rose Rosenfeld, am one of the workers
who survived. Before the inferno broke out,
factory doors had been locked by the owners,


to keep us at our sewing machines,
to keep us from stealing scraps of cloth.
I said to myself, What are the bosses doing?
I knew they would save themselves.


I left my big-button-attacher machine,
climbed the iron stairs to the tenth floor
where their offices were. From the landing window


I saw girls in shirtwaists flying by,
Catherine wheels projected like Zeppelins
out open windows, then plunging downward,
sighing skirts open parasols on fire.


I found the big shots stuffing themselves
into the freight elevator going to the roof.
I squeezed in. While our girls were falling,


we ascended like ashes. Firemen
yanked us onto the next-door roof.
I sank to the tarpaper, sobbed for
one-hundred forty-six comrades dying


or dead down below. One was Rebecca,
my only close friend, a forewoman kind to workers.
Like the others, she burned like a prism.


Relatives of twenty-three victims later
Brought suits.
Each family was awarded seventy-five dollars.
It was like the Titanic the very next year-
No one cared about the souls in steerage.


Those doors were locked, too, a sweatshop at sea.
They died due to ice, not fire. I live in
Southern California now. But I still see


skirts rippling like parachutes,
girls hit the cobblestones, smell smoke,
burnt flesh, girls cracking like cheap buttons,
disappearing like so many dropped stitches.


Poem: "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire" by Robert Phillips from Circumstances Beyond Our Control: Poems. © Johns Hopkins University Press

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