When I was young, for a reason I don’t remember, my mother told me that my great-grandmother had survived a famous fire. The Triangle Fire, she called it, explaining that it had been a very famous fire, and that many people had died. Some had burned to death, but most had jumped from very high windows to escape the flames. This was very interesting to me, primarily because I hoped it might impress the kids at school. It wasn’t likely that any of them had a relative who had been in a Famous Fire. Sharing the information with my fellow third-graders the next day at Dogwood Elementary School, I quickly realized that the other students cared little about Famous Fires and that, having impressed no one, I would continue to be picked last for recess dodgeball teams for the foreseeable future.
Still, that fire factoid stuck in my mind, and I began to think of it as “my great-grandmother’s fire.” Four years later I happened upon – dusty and discount-sticker tagged – a large, red, hardcover book languishing in the discount bin of our local K-Mart. The title, in bold black letters was, simply: DISASTERS. The book, measuring approximately two feet by one foot, contained reprints of The New York Time’s front page reporting of every major disaster from the late 1800’s until the current year, 1976. One look inside, revealing a grainy black-and-white Times photo of a giant jetliner lying dismembered and smoking in a city street, and I knew I had to have this book. It took only a minimum of begging before my mother agreed to buy it for me.
VIEW IMAGES OF THE TRIANGLE FACTORY FIRE (warning: slideshow contains graphic images)
Had she looked between the covers of the book before purchase, she probably would have first blanched and then insisted I put it back. Thrilled at benefiting from a rare bad parental decision, I eagerly removed the giant book from the bag on the ride home and was immediately sucked in by the multitude of grainy half-tone reprints of extremely graphic photographs . Apparently, the rules for what kind of photos were allowed in print were much more lax in the early days of disaster reportage. There were scores of fires in that book, along with plane crashes and earthquakes and tsunamis. The photos I found the most interesting, however, were those of the fire victims and the dark puzzle that each one contained. A policeman or fireman stared into the camera flash, while at their feet lay masses of what were identified as bodies, burned, as the caption declared “beyond recognition. ” Burned beyond recognition was a fascinating, if horrible concept, even for a twelve-year old as morbid as I was, and I turned and tilted the book to study the lumpy, black masses until I could detect a form – perhaps a head, a leg or an arm. Okay, there’s the head, so this must be an arm. I sought to recognize the unrecognizable, and I recall succeeding with a pile of charred bodies from a long-ago trolley car fire in Chicago. One moment I was staring, uncomprehending, at a jumbled pile of black, gray and white shapes. The next moment, a face, skull-like, with a grinning death rictus, was staring back at me. I shuddered. The whole book seemed as taboo as porn to me, and I decided that my mother could never be permitted to know it’s content. I couldn’t risk having this taken away from me until I’d devoured it from beginning to end.
“Hey!” I shouted anyway, having happened on a reprinted story from March, 1911. “Your grandmother’s fire is in here!” Impressed that my great-grandmother’s fire was now offically, formally confirmed in print as a Famous Fire, I set about reading all of the associated stories, soaking in the horrifying details conveyed in the sensational, slightly dramatic reporting style of the time. The photos were heartbreaking, because they did not require careful studying: the heaps of bodies on the sidewalk, where scores of young women had landed after jumping to their deaths, were easily discernible as the living, breathing creatures they had so recently been.
CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO OF ‘MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER’S FIRE’