To Make a Dream Come True: Sadie Hershey

To Make a Dream Come True: Sadie Hershey

Stories of the Residents of the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington

Triangle Factory Fire.2

Sadie Hershey:  A Survivor of the Triangle Fire

Unlike many of the people in this book, Sadie Hershey came from a well-to-do family.  Yet, like so many thousands of immigrant Jews, when she came to America she went to work in a dressmaking factory.

Much has been written about these sweatshops, long, crowded, poorly ventilated fire-traps, where men, women and children worked 13 to 16 hour days at barely subsistence wages.

Sadie lived through the best and worst of those times.  She made relatively good money for a semi-skilled dressmaker.  However, she also went to work for the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. in New York City.  She was working at the factory when one of the worst factory fires in the country’s history claimed 146 lives on Saturday, March 25, 1911.  Some of the 500 employees were trapped inside a building whose doors had been locked to keep employees from going outside to take a break during the long workday.  Others tried to escape by jumping out of burning windows.  Most did not make it.  Sadie escaped through one of the few doors not yet blocked by fire.

The Triangle fire generated national outrage, protest marches, and finally, the first legislation to provide better working conditions for factory workers.  Sadie lived with nightmare memories for the rest of her life.

Leaving the Old Country and Family for a Life in America

I was born in 1889. I come from a family of five children.  We lived in a very nice house; it was our own house, a nice, big house.  Of course, the conveniences were not like they are today, but it was very nice as I look back.  There were not too many Jews in town.  We had a shul.  My father was very educated in Jewish.  He was a Yeshiva bocha from St. Petersburg.  He graduated Yeshiva there and then he went to Budapest and he got his Hungarian and German education.

I came to America.  My sister was here.  She was already eighteen years old, and she wrote me she would like to have some family come to America.  She said, “How would you like to come?” When I heard that, I thought you come to America and you just grab all the money and you can go back with all the money. She wrote and I started nagging and nagging to go. That’s how I came to America.

The Triangle Tragedy

I worked there about three years when a fire broke out on a Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911.  It was a quarter after five.  I was standing on the 8th floor and I see smoke from near the cutter’s table. So I said to the superintendent, I said, “Mr. Bernstein, there’s smoke coming from the valves.”  He grabs the pail and goes over to put it out.  And the flame went up, all the way up to the ceiling.  He threw the water on it. There were two barrels of oil standing right next to it, and that right away started to burn terrible. 

I was only about fifteen feet from the fire, but the fire went up, it didn’t go down. We all ran to the door and the door was locked.  One door was locked and the door where the oil was fire, nobody could use it.  There were two elevators there and nobody can use the door that the bosses locked because they were afraid the people would carry home a piece of cotton or lace or something.  One girl said to me, “Sadie, let’s go and jump down from the window.”  I said, “Marie, don’t jump.  Brown will come and he’ll open the door.”  Brown as the machinist and had the keys for everything. So with God’s help, Brown did come but by then, I don’t know—I don’t remember how she disappeared.  Brown opened the door and we all ran out. 

You know how a whole bunch, one pushes the other, and we went out and we fell, most of us fell and we were rolling down steps.  I was black and blue.  I lost my coat.  I had it on my arm.  I lost my hat.  I don’t know if I lost my pocketbook.  I guess I did.  I came downstairs and I see that girl’s body on the floor, in the gutter. And so many people on the floor.  It was just like garbage.  They threw one on top of the other. 

I was standing and a man comes over to me and I don’t know to this day if I paid the fare, who paid the fare, nothing but I came on the trolley and my hair was all loose, down, and I looked terrible and I came into my sister’s home.  I came in there and it was Saturday afternoon, 5:30, 6:00 o’clock, and a lot of her husband’s patients were in the room.  I just passed and I ran into the dining room and I sat down and I cried something terrible and I was full of dirt and all that.  One patient went in and he said, “Dr. Berger, your sister-in-law just came home.  She looks as though she was banged up somewhere, terrible and crying and all that.”  And he comes into the dining room. He said, “Sadie, what happened?”  I said, “All the Triangle is burned up.” He said to the people, “You’ll excuse me, I’m not going to have not office hours, I want to take care of my sister-in-law.” 

With that, he called up somebody and they came and stood with me.  He wanted to see for himself about the fire. So he took the car and he went down there.  My brother-in-law had the doctor to me.  I was very banged up on the back. They were putting cold compresses on me and my boyfriend found out and he came up to see me and a few more people came to see me and my sister came home and says, “What’s going on here?” And the doctor says, “Mrs. Berger, you almost lost your sister.”  She said she heard “extra, extra” but she never thought of buying the paper.

There were about 220 people killed, and burned.  They found bodies inside, in the elevator, in the bathroom.  They hid away and they burned there and on the floor.  Some of them remained cripples.  One man was going down with the elevator and the cable, he lost his arm and was badly crippled and insane.  There was a lot of tragedy there.

Well, anyway, that was the end of the Triangle.  The next morning from the paper they came to see me and they wanted me to go to try to identify bodies.  They insisted on me going. My brother-in-law, he was such a nice person, I don’t know how he could have told me to go.  He said, “Go.” So they took me and I passed out there in the Bellevue morgue.  They had to take me home, but until I passed out, I saw rows of bodies, rows of bodies and one foot sticking out with one shoe on and one without a shoe on, and I’m telling you—such a sight.  How can I see allmy friends dead?  It was really terrible, terrible.

 

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