Discovering My Grandmother's Triangle Fire Story
Three years ago, my knowledge of my paternal grandmother, born Annie Sprinsock, was at best sketchy. A Russian-Jewish immigrant to New York City, she lived a tragically truncated life marked by recurrent bouts of melancholia until her death at the young age of 34 in 1929. My father, deeply pained by her untimely death, rarely spoke of her to my brother and me when we were children -- except to say that she had been at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the day of the infamous fire.
Then in 2008, what began as my innocent Google search of Annie astoundingly led to seeing her listed as a survivor in Cornell University Kheel Center's Triangle Fire Archive. My cousin Steven dug deeper into the Archive, discovering a New York Times article about 17-year-old Annie's "heroic deed": saving her friend by holding her above her head as the last elevator down had no floor space left. Since 2008, researcher Michael Hirsch has pieced together information that my grandmother worked as a sewing machine operator on the ninth floor, where only half the employees survived. Hirsch has also confirmed that she saved Katie Weiner, the last known girl to escape the inferno which took the lives of 146 mostly young, immigrant Italian and Jewish women.
In my imagination, the previous outline of my grandmother gave way to a more definite form through this ordinary 17-year-old girl's extraordinary act of courage. What a precious gift this story has become to Annie's descendents. For my 82-year-old Aunt Beverly, who was an infant when her mother died, it was as if she could almost hear her mother's voice as Annie told of her escape in the New York Times piece. If that were the only gift, I would have been more than satisfied. But Annie's story has given our family a lost mother and a never-known grandmother whose presence of mind and moxie helped save a life.
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Eileen Boisen Nevitt is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in geriatric care management. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two adult sons.