Blood, fire, gravity

I gave blood after work on Monday. Since I do a double red cell donation, it’s a longer process than a standard single-unit of whole blood, typically around 35 minutes on the bed. I tried to read, but there was too much activity for me to focus on my book, so I was resigned to watching the local TV news.

Between reports about cell phone facial treatments at a spa (evidently, talking on your cell phone constantly can give you zits, not tumors) and the bizarre accidental death of a retired cop (in his old precinct house, “cleaning his gun”) was a piece about Sunday’s 96th anniversary memorial for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The report was as sad as you’d expect, with a litany of the horrors and the number of dead women. When it wrapped, I noticed that the entire in-studio news-team was female, which makes some sorta point about advances in the last 96 years, but I’m not sure what.

The news report also brought up something I meant to write about a few years ago. In 2005, Amy & I watched Ric Burns’ New York documentary series on DVD. We enjoyed it plenty, even if Amy did drift off to sleep during some parts (it was weekend viewing, back before she moved in, so the combo of exhausting work-weeks and the soothingness of David Ogden Stiers’ voice took its toll). I learned a ton about the history of the city, particularly from the Robert Moses chapter, which relies heavily on the work of Robert Caro, a featured speaker throughout much of the documentary and possessor of one of the most seriously old-school websites ever.

Oy, with the flippant avoidance!

See, what I’m trying to write about is another aspect of 9/11, and I know that’s likely to cause you to tune out and go find some other blog to help you cruise through your workday. So, to make things easier for you, I’ll put the rest of this post under a “more” jump, so you can pretend you didn’t notice that and thought I was done writing.

Still with me? Okay. Here’s what I thought about when the Triangle Shirtwaist news item was on: that the Twin Towers jumpers changed our perspective on horror.

During the Triangle fire segment on the NY documentary, there’s a passage where Robert Caro tries to describe the scene on the ground:

You know, you can hardly believe it when you read about it. I mean, imagine: from the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of a building overlooking Washington Square Park. First this great tongue of flame leaps out, and passersby look up and a policeman says, “Oh, it was just some kind of momentary accident.” Then all of a sudden one passerby sees that something that looked like a bale of old clothes comes plummeting down from the 8th floor. And it hits with this thud that somehow seemed too loud for a bale of clothes on the sidewalk. It was burning as it fell, and someone said, “They must be throwing out the burning bales of clothes.”

And then other bodies started to come down. People realized — I mean young girls would go out on the ledge, the flames would be blooming up behind them, and they jumped, of course to die. Some would try to cling to the ledge with their fingertips, but they couldn’t. You have plummeting down to the street scores of burning dead bodies.

His description is filled with horror at the act these poor women had to commit. Transcribing his words last night, it took me a while to figure out where to place the comma in “they jumped, of course to die”, but it’s his opening words that revealed to me the change in perspective. There’s a rising tone in his voice as he goes from “8th, 9th and 10th floors” as if each flight — a mere 10 feet — makes the jumpers that much more desperate or hopeless. It’s not feigned; one can feel Caro’s utter amazement that a person can be left with no choice but to jump, “of course to die.” And from a hundred feet up!

Ninety years later, an unknown number of people — estimates range between 50 and 200 — would jump from WTC windows as high as 1,300 feet. As a USA Today article put it, “Ultimately, they were choosing not whether to die but how to die.”

Hearing Caro’s description in 2005, I almost felt a longing for his sadness, which somehow rendered the Triangle Shirtwaist fire more intimate to me, smaller in scale.

I wish I had more to offer on this, but I’m defeated by ineffability. I think maybe you ought to go back to my Wendung post for a little relief from gravity.

3 Replies to “Blood, fire, gravity”

  1. I teach on the 7th floor of that building( The Triangle building, I mean)…all of my classes. When we have a fire alarm? It takes 45 minutes for us to evacuate. Nice.

  2. Gil, I think you’re onto something, but I also think the strangest thing about the way 9/11 was processed was that it was done so from multiple angles, at multiple distances, to effects of variable depth. My take would be that it didn’t move the threshold of what we considered horrible, but rendered obsolete the idea of a single threshold.

  3. Gil–

    It’s called The Asch Building, and I walk past it from time to time to remind myself of this sad moment in American Labor History. Thank you for this nice reflection….


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