|Birth: ||1894, Ukraine|
|Death: ||Mar. 25, 1911|
New York County (Manhattan)
New York, USA
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Victim. According to immigration records, Surka was born in the (then) Russian city of Sarovka. A slight girl at 5' 4" tall and only 17 years old, she left her father Chire and two younger sisters to set sail from Hamburg, Germany on January 25, 1911 and land at Ellis Island on February 5 to join her four older siblings in the United States. Brother Joseph was an inside contractor at the Triangle Waist Company on the 9th floor of the Asch Building in New York City and could hire sewing machine operators. He had already found a job for their older sister Rosie and promised the same for Surka. Only seven weeks later and after adopting the "Americanized" name of Sarah, she found herself seated at one of the long rows of wooden tables churning out the most popular ladies' garment of the period.
The company made women's blouses, known as "waists" or "shirtwaists", and it's workers were mostly recent immigrant German, Italian and European Jewish girls, some as young as 13 years old although older women, men and young boys were also represented. Their working conditions were far from safe. They worked 14 hour shifts among heaps of flammable bolts of fabric, scraps of which piled up in bins, baskets and on the floor around them; tissue paper patterns hung from racks above their worktables. The workrooms were lit by open flame gas lamps and the cutters, mostly men, were allowed to smoke as they worked. Brought on by a New York garment workers strike in 1910, many had joined the fledgling International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. At the conclusion of the strike, most companies had signed agreements with the union improving working conditions. The Triangle Company, however, refused to sign and was under no obligation to abide by established safety rules.
On March 25, 1911, around 4:30pm, fire broke out on the 8th floor. Most on that floor and the executives on the 10th floor were able to escape, but workers on the 9th floor, who had not been alerted to the fire, found themselves trapped. Of the four 9th floor exits, the elevator was commandeered by 8th floor workers and then stopped working altogether, one stairwell door was soon blocked by fire and smoke, the other stairwell door had been locked (although denied by the owners in the trial held after, it was a common practice to lock factory workers in to prevent them from stealing) and the only fire escape proved too flimsy and collapsed under the weight of the escaping workers. Many died from being overcome by the smoke and flames quickly filling the building, but 62 of the workers realized there were no other means of escape and jumped from the windows to the pavement 9 stories below. Or worse, they were pushed toward the open windows by the panicked crowd and had no choice. Although the fire department responded quickly, the water from their hoses would not reach the top floors and ladders of the time were unable to reach above the 6th floor. By the time the fire was extinguished, 141 people had lost their lives. In the next few days, 5 more would die from their injuries.
From her documented injuries and cause of death, Sarah and her sister Rosie were overcome by the smoke and flames and never escaped the burning building. Sarah's body remained unidentified for six days. Their brother Joseph had been one of the first to notice the fire and, following his natural instinct to run, had escaped through the one unlocked door before the flames had spread. Remembering his sisters, he returned to the 9th floor to search for them, but was unable to find either Rosie or Sarah in the growing smoke and flames. In the end, he escaped via one of the elevators. From the Final Report of the Union Relief Committee, the Brenman sisters, one of nine pairs of siblings to die in the fire, appear as Case #126: "Two sisters, 23 and 17 years old, were killed; their brother, 21, escaped without injury. There were also a brother, 27 years old, and a sister, 19, in New York. The father and two younger sisters were in Russia. The father was said to have "a very small trade in eggs" and to rely chiefly on the money sent him from America, which was about $160.00 a year. The surviving sister in New York was seriously affected physically by the shock. Assistance amounting in all to $175.00 was given to the sister to enable her to spend the summer in the country. $20.00 a month was sent to the father in Russia through the oldest son until October, and on November 14 a lump sum of $500.00 was sent in the same way."
The public outrage following the tragedy and subsequent acquittal of the company's owners paved the way for a flood of legislation to improve factory safety standards, led to the founding of The American Society of Safety Engineers and hastened the growth and clout of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. A bystander who witnessed the young girls jumping from the windows was inspired to a life of public service fighting for the rights of factory workers; Frances Perkins went on to become the first woman appointed to a Presidential Cabinet position as Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was the single worst workplace disaster in New York City until the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.
Baron Hirsch Cemetery
Richmond County (Staten Island)
New York, USA
Maintained by: TomDuse
Originally Created by: Jennifer
Record added: May 18, 2005
Find A Grave Memorial# 10986957