rn> The Last Triangle Fire Survivor Dies at 107


Richard Moore

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Subject: The Last Triangle Fire Survivor Dies at 107
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February 17, 2001
Rose Freedman, Last Survivor of Triangle Fire, Dies at 107


Rose Freedman, the last survivor of the Triangle
Shirtwaist fire in which 146 of her co-workers
perished in 1911, died on Thursday in her
apartment in Beverly Hills, Calif., her daughter
said. She was 107.

Mrs. Freedman, who at the time of the Manhattan
fire was two days shy of 18, escaped death in 1911
by following company executives to the roof to be
rescued. She became a lifelong crusader for worker
safety, telling and retelling the story that the
Triangle workers died because the owners were not
concerned with their welfare.

The disastrous factory fire, in which girls and
young women leapt from eighth- and ninth-story
windows, their flaming skirts billowing in the
wind, horrified the nation and led to some of the
first city, state and federal laws dealing with
workers' safety. It gave a powerful impetus to the
fledgling labor movement, greatly strengthening
the building of the International Ladies Garment
Workers Union, which two years before the fire had
led a three-month strike to focus attention on
conditions in workplaces like the Triangle

The union's successor, the Union of Needletrades,
Industrial and Textile Employees, confirmed that
Mrs. Freedman, who was Rose Rosenfeld at the time
of the fire, was the last survivor to die. The
next-to-last, Bessie Cohen, died two years ago.

Mrs. Freedman's life after the fire was colorful
and courageous. In World War I, she saved the life
of a spy in Austria. After her husband's death, in
1959, she went back to work to support her three
children, two of whom had polio. Lying about her
age, she worked at a Manhattan insurance company
until she was 79.

Mrs. Freedman, who always wore high heels,
celebrated her centennial by attending Spanish
classes in a Mexican town with cobblestone
streets, but refused to abandon her heels for more
sensible shoes. "I'd look matronly," she said.

Her involvement in the fire never left her
consciousness, and she appeared at labor rallies
for the rest of her life. She always expressed
rage that the factory doors had been locked,
either to keep workers at their machines or to
prevent them from stealing scraps of cloth. She
always told of how one of the owners tried to
bribe her to say the doors were not locked. She

The owners were eventually acquitted of
manslaughter charges when the jury could not
establish whether they had ordered the doors
locked or had even known they were. But in 1914,
civil suits brought by relatives of 23 victims
ended with payments of $75 to each of the

On the day of the fire, Mrs. Freedman escaped the
inferno by stopping to consider what the
executives were doing. She somehow thought they
would be safer, and went up to the 10th floor,
where their offices were, to find out. They were
taking the freight elevator to the roof, where
firefighters pulled them to the roof of an
adjacent building. She did the same. The
alternative was jumping.

"Girls in shirtwaists, which were aflame, went
flying out of the building so that you saw these
young women literally ablaze flying out of the
windows," she said in a Public Broadcasting System
documentary, "The Living Century," shown in
December and January.

As she was taken down the steps of the adjacent
building, she stopped on each stoop to sit down
and cry. "When I came in the street, here comes my
father," she recalled. "He collapsed. He fainted.
And I didn't go back to work anymore. I went to

The anger about what she saw as the owners' greed
persisted. In the documentary, she said:

"That's the whole trouble of this fire. Nobody
cares. Nobody. Hundred forty-six people in a half
an hour. I have always tears in my eyes when I
think. It should never have happened. The
executives with a couple of steps could have
opened the door. But they thought they were better
than the working people. It's not fair because
material, money, is more important here than

"That's the biggest mistake - that a person
doesn't count much when he hasn't got money. What
good is a rich man when he hasn't got a heart? I
don't pretend. I feel it. Still."

Rose Rosenfeld was born on March 27, 1893, in a
small town north of Vienna. Her family ran a
profitable business importing and exporting dried
foods. After her father visited New York and fell
in love with it, the family began spending more
and more time in the United States, finally
emigrating in 1909. They sailed on the Mauretania.

With Mrs. Freedman's father devoting most of his
time to Jewish studies, the business was run by
her mother. An aunt who lived with the family once
sharply criticized the young woman's housecleaning
abilities. "You call this work?" she demanded.

Mrs. Freedman's response was to go out the next
day and take a job at the Triangle factory. Since
her language skills were good - she eventually
spoke seven languages - she was given the
prestigious job of operating a large machine to
attach buttons to the blouses. Her only close
friend at the factory, a forewoman, died in the

She attended college in New York, although family
members are not sure where.

When she and her mother took a trip to their
Austrian hometown to show Mrs. Freedman's
grandparents that she was really alive, World War
I had broken out, and the Russians had invaded
Austria. Her grandfather had befriended a man who
turned out to be a Russian spying against his own
country for Austria. She told of hiding him by
burying him in coal in the basement, then talking
the pursuing Cossacks into leaving without a

After returning to New York, she got a job with
Cunard, the steamship line. In 1927, she married
Harry Freedman, an American she had first met at
the American Club in Vienna. He owned a typewriter
store in New York.

They had three children. When the two youngest
were stricken with polio, Mrs. Freedman asked when
they would be able to walk. The doctor said, "Five
years." She replied, "I have time."

Mr. Freedman died at 59, leaving Mrs. Freedman no
money or source of income. She got an accounting
job at the Manhattan Life Insurance Company. Her
youthful appearance enabled her to say she was 50,
when she was actually 64.

"Of course it was a lie, but they didn't know it
was a lie," she said. She worked until she was 79.

In 1995, she moved to Los Angeles, where her son
Robert and her daughter, Arlene March, live.
There, she became such an avid fan of the Lakers
that she became livid if someone phoned while a
game was being shown on television. On her 100th
birthday she was presented with a team jersey
bearing the number 100.

She exhibited paintings at the Beverly Hills Art
Fair, and continued to paint almost until her
death. She had her hair and nails done weekly, and
shopped and cooked for herself.

Mrs. Freedman was still attending Spanish language
classes at 107.

"To me, 106 is a number," she said in the
documentary. "I lived that long, not only on
account of my genes, but on account of my
attitude. You've got to stand up for yourself. Am
I right?"

Other survivors are another son, Herbert, of Rye
Brook, N.Y., eight grandchildren and one
great-granddaughter. She was overjoyed at the
great-granddaughter's birth, and always advised
the child's mother, her granddaughter, Dana
Walden, who is president of 20th Century Fox
Television, not to get caught in grief when loved
ones died.

"Sadness takes years from you," she said.

Her own passing ends a chapter of history. Steven
Latham, director of the documentary, suggested it
was something like the last Holocaust survivor
dying. "This is the last voice of an event," he
said. "This woman actually smelled the smoke."