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The Ghost Ship and Personal Responsibility


The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The year was 1911. The Industrial Revolution was just a few years away. America was in its darkest period of labor exploitation. Industries had no safety regulations, laws against child labor were non-existent, and sweatshops abounded. Authors like Upton Sinclair were writing books like The Jungle that pointed out in stark detail the dangers and poor working conditions of the current industrial labor base.

One typical business of the day was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan New York. Housed on the eighth through tenth floors of a high-rise building, it employed many common labor practices of the day: long-hour sweatshop conditions; use of young immigrants at starvation wage; no fire suppression systems; and, important in this case, locking the exit doors so that workers couldn't sneak out to avoid work.

The fire began on a Saturday. It raced through the factory's wooden structure and garment & fabric storage spaces with little resistance. There was little to no warning to the workers until the fire reached their workplaces. Some workers escaped through the one elevator until it ceased to function. Those that ran for the exit doors to the staircases found them locked. Rather than burn, 62 chose to jump to the pavement below, including a young couple who kissed as they jumped. When the tragedy had ended, 146 young people were dead.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire set in motion a worker safety reform movement that still exists today. The workweek was shortened; an investigation of fire safety branched out into an investigation of working conditions and worker safety in general; laws were written regarding child labor, fire alarm and egress systems; and the concern for safety resulted in the establishment of the American Society of Safety Engineers.

Those Who cannot Remember the Past ... 

... are Doomed to Repeat it. (George Santana) This quote perfectly encapsulates the core issue here. It appears that in the immediate aftermath of a gut-wrenching tragedy, that we're completely amenable to and capable of learning. The number of people who did not have their lives cut short by disasters because of what we learned from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire are undoubtedly legion--you yourself and your lives and families may be the beneficiary of what was learned on that day. Who's to say?

But what is very clear is that we're not good from learning from our past. Consider that the Monongah Mining Disaster occurred in 1907; the disaster killed at least 362 miners.

Granted, mining is an inherently dangerous industry. I get that. But can anyone come forth and definitively state that if the lessons of the Monongah disaster had been applied to mining operations afterwards, that it would not have made any difference? That fewer people would not have died? I don't think so. So that gap in deaths, even though we can't precisely calculate it, is the evidence that we don't learn well.

The Ghost Ship

And that all brings us to our topic of the day: The Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. The Ghost Ship was originally a warehouse; however, over time, the shortage of affordable housing and entertainment space in the bay area caused it to transition into unauthorized housing and a party venue.

City services were unable to keep up with this type of transition: Code violations had been issued, cure notices had been issued, but it made no difference: the need for residential and entertainment space far exceeds the ability of the community to provide it. The community is struggling with what to do. But it's most likely that whatever they come up with will fall short of the requirement for public protection and safety.

The Ghost Ship is only one of many that provide these needs. It is only one of many that does not meet modern codes. And it is only one of many--in cities across the nation--that could become conflagrations at a moment's notice. This one happened in Oakland--but arguably, it could have happened anywhere that there is stress on housing availability and community services.

So What to Do?

In our political system, we value two distinct ideals: working together for a common cause; and individual responsibility for well-being. When we are working together for a common cause, then we enact building codes, create enforcement regulations, assign enforcement officials, everyone plays by the rules, and for the most part, we live happily ever after. However, when those concepts are overwhelmed (and it happens) then it falls on individual citizens to provide leadership in the effort to do what's right in the preservation of life and health.

Long story short: learn why you should be your own Fire Marshall. Yes, we live in the most advanced society that humankind has ever developed. Yes, we protect our citizens as a community better than any society in history. Yes, we fall short and rely on individual human determination to make things turn out right from time to time. And yes, it appears that this may be one of those times.

Can you help? What is your responsibility--both to common cause and individual responsibility? Think about it. Act on it. People may survive based on what you do.

Randall Cuthbert Dr. Randall Cuthbert is a retired APUS Professor of Emergency & Disaster Management. He has also worked as a Red Cross Shelter Supervisor, and spent a 20-year career as a US Air Force Civil Engineer Officer. His blogging interests include: protecting & enhancing the EDM profession in the areas of integrity, honorable public service, and social justice; education regarding the 'big picture' role of EDM in our society; educating our professionals and neighbors with regard to the greatest threat to our civilization--climate change; and in general terms, creating a better world for our children and grandchildren.