NEW YORK — In the Cemetery of the Evergreens on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, there is a haunting stone monument to the garment workers who died in the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 but were never identified. It contains the bas-relief figure of a kneeling woman, her head bowed, seemingly mourning not only the deaths, but also the fact that those buried below were so badly charred that relatives could not recognize them.
Almost a century after the fire, the five women and one man, all buried in coffins under the Evergreens monument, remained unknown to the public at large, though relatives and descendants knew that a loved one had never returned from the burning blouse factory.
Now those six have been identified, largely through the persistence of a researcher, Michael Hirsch, who became obsessed with learning all he could about the victims after he discovered that one of those killed, Lizzie Adler, a 24-year-old greenhorn from Romania, had lived on his block in the East Village.
And so, for the first time, at the centennial commemoration of the fire on March 25 outside the building in Greenwich Village where the Triangle Waist Company occupied the eighth, ninth and 10th floors, the names of all 146 dead will finally be read.
The fire was a wrenching event in New York’s history, one that had a profound influence on building codes, labor laws, politics and the beginning of the New Deal two decades later.
Among the most anguishing aspects was the memory of the more than 50 young immigrant women and men who were forced to leap from the high floors to escape the inferno. However, many of the 146 victims — 129 women and 17 men — burned to death in the loft building, and had no telltale jewelry or clothing to help identify them.
The day the six unidentified victims were buried was the culmination of the city’s outpouring of grief; hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers turned out in a driving rain for a symbolic funeral procession sponsored by labor unions and other organizations, while hundreds of thousands more watched from the sidewalks.
Descendants of those who perished, like a great-granddaughter of one 33-year-old victim, Maria Lauletti, were heartened by the news, though no one interviewed had yet made a decision whether to exhume bodies from the Evergreens cemetery and attempt a DNA match.