Izzy had decided to make his last delivery of fabric trimmings by way of Washington Place in the hopes of running into Miss Fannie Lipsky on her way home from work. He was just rounding the corner of Greene Street on his bicycle when he heard what sounded like an explosion in the Asch Building. He looked up to see a puff of smoke, then heard a commotion. He stopped his bike in time to see a bundle of dress goods come out of an eighth-floor window. A bystander remarked they must be trying to save the best cloth. But in its descent, the unraveling falling bundle revealed it was not a bolt of cloth at all, but a girl.
Izzy stood still for a moment and clutched the handlebars of his delivery bike, trying to comprehend what was happening. He stared at the girl, not believing she was dead, yet knowing she was. For a brief moment, all the world was silent in Izzy’s head as he walked over to where the delicate girl lay as still as a fallen branch. He placed his cap gently on her anguished face and began to chant Kaddish, the ancient recitation for the dead. “Yitgaddal, veyitgaddah, shmeh rabba . . .”
Then he heard the racket: policemen yelling at bystanders; firemen, abandoning ladders that only reached to the fifth floor, were struggling to open their safety nets to catch the terrified girls standing on the windowsills; other firemen, their hoses aimed at the upper windows, braced themselves not to be unbalanced by the pressure of the avalanche of water; and girls, singly and in twos and threes screaming as they surged out of the burning building.
As a crowd gathered where the body had hit the ground, horses pulled at their tethers, and the wagon drivers stood to quiet them. The screams and the whinnying brought Mrs. Lena Goldman out of her restaurant on Greene Street. At first, she too thought someone was throwing bolts of cloth out the window, until one fluttered open and she saw legs. Another girl came tumbling down, then another. Mrs. Goldman, who knew many of the girls as customers, tried to process the scene. She watched in horror as groups gathered on the sills of the ninth-floor windows. Some would pause, as if to rethink what they were doing, then jump with arms entwined. Some tried to jump feet first, others seemed to float for a moment before beginning their fatal descent.
“Mein Gott,” she said, “it’s raining children.”
Izzy looked up through the smoke and water torrents and saw men, women, and girls leaning out of smoke-filled windows in between the neat lettering proclaiming Triangle Waist Factory. He ran to help, grabbing a corner of a blanket that some men were holding, but they yelled, “Get outta here, kid, you wanna get killed!” and when Izzy persisted in holding on, they kicked him out of the way.
“Alright, let’s move along now,” said a serious-looking copper. “You’ll only get hurt here.”
Izzy absentmindedly wiped off his dirty knickers and moved his bike across the street, chaining it to the railing on a stoop. At least this was something he could control. He edged his way back to the other side, unnoticed by the policeman. He couldn’t leave. He knew some of the girls who worked at the Triangle Waist Company —Molly Cohen from down the street, Sadie Klein from his building, and Fannie Lipsky, the girl from the park. Maybe he could sneak into the building and look for them.
A year earlier, the shirtwaist makers went out on strike and officers from the nearby Eighth Precinct station on Mercer Street had been called to break it up. Now the same officers began to arrive. They were horrified when they realized whom they’d been summoned to save. They looked at the falling and dead bodies in disbelief. Captain Patrick Moroney noticed a girl who seemed to have survived and recognized her by her blonde curly hair as one of the girls he’d clubbed during the strike. Relieved she was alive, he helped her up and, starting to guide her across the street, said, “There now girlie, you’ll be all right. And don’t forget your pretty hat.” They walked ten feet—her hands cold, her eyes unseeing—and she dropped to the ground. In less than a minute, she was dead. Captain Moroney gently picked up her body, carried it across the street, and lay it carefully next to a nearby building. He closed her eyes and covered her face with the pea-green beret. Then he walked around the corner and threw up.
By this time, there were so many curious bystanders that Izzy was able to make his way to the Asch Building without being noticed. People were streaming out of the fire door at the right of the building front. As he approached, a pair of young girls ran out onto the sidewalk. He recognized one.
“Sadie, are you okay?” he asked as the girls leaned against the building to catch their breath.
She met his eyes. “What are you doing here?”
“I was making a delivery. Why don’t you sit?” He looked at her companion and realized she was Fannie Lipsky.
He whispered, “Are you all right, Miss Lipsky?”
Sadie looked at her at the same time. “Oh, Fannie, you’ve got a bruise on your head.” She gingerly touched Fannie’s forehead. “Does it hurt?”
“I think I’m okay,” Fannie sighed. “I just need to rest.”
Sadie took a deep breath.
At that point, they all noticed the noise and activity around them.
“I’ve got to find Gerty,” said Fannie, as she steadied herself against the building.
“But Fannie,” said Sadie, “we can’t do anything. Let the policemen and firemen do their jobs. We’ll only get in the way.”
“She’s right,” said Izzy. “You need to get your head looked at. You’re bleeding.”
Fannie looked at Izzy as if for the first time. “You don’t understand. She’s my best friend, I have to find her.”
She started to walk toward the Asch Building, but more bodies came hurtling down. The three young people instinctively drew back as they witnessed each body hitting the pavement with a thud, like heavy bags of trash. The deceptive difference between the ordinary sounds and what they were actually witnessing was unbearable.
Fannie screamed, holding her face with her hands, her body shaking all over. She and Sadie clutched each other.
They heard a sound from above and looked up. A young man and woman were entwined on the ledge. They held each other for a moment and kissed. Then he held her out, as if making an offering and, trying to be gentle, dropped her delicately to her death. The young man straightened his jacket as if he were about to greet someone and stepped off to meet his loved one in eternity. As if in pursuit, flames forced their way through the open window.
Then a young woman in burning clothes toppled out of the same ninth-floor window and got caught on an iron hook, which protruded out from the sixth floor. Her body just hung there for a moment, then fell to the ground, its flames mercifully extinguished by the impact.
Too stupefied to move, all the bystanders, including Fannie, Izzy, and Sadie, continued to look up, waiting for more bodies to come crashing down. Firemen and policemen shouted commands and ran around frantically, trying to bring some order to the chaos of bloody corpses and personal belongings strewn along the pavement.
After a while, it became obvious no one else would escape the inferno. Fannie noticed the clock on a nearby building. It was five past five—only twenty minutes ago she’d received her pay envelope. She put her hand in the left pocket of her coat and felt her change-purse. It was still there.
“She heard a cry and, turning her head, saw Sadie bending over a girl’s body. Then she noticed that the face was covered by a familiar-looking pea-green beret.
Collapsing, she wailed, “Gerty, oh no, not Gerty.”