Real cause of Philadelphia’s deadly fire is unequal society - GulfToday

Real cause of Philadelphia’s deadly fire is unequal society


Firefighters prepare to douse the fire through the rooftop. (File/Reuters)

Will Bunch, Tribune News Service

The fire and its large death toll shocked not just a large American city but the entire nation — the speed with which it spread through the building, the desperate escape attempts of those trapped inside either piled up against a locked doorway or leaping to the pavement far below, the lack of basic safety procedures that might have prevented the tragedy.

But today, nearly 111 years later, New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is remembered not only for the 146 lives — many of them poor women immigrant workers in their teens and 20s — that were lost on that Saturday afternoon of March 25, 1911. The anniversary is still marked after more than a century because this was essentially the day that a nation — after a booming Gilded Age economy had created a grossly unequal society, where masses toiled in dangerous conditions for long hours and low pay — finally said enough is enough.

Although a stunning 350,000 people marched through Manhattan in a funeral procession, a generation of activists didn’t stop at lighting candles for the victims.

The years immediately after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire saw a concerted push in New York State that led to 20 new laws around fire safety and worker safety, alongside a new political zeitgeist of sweeping reform. One of the leading post-Triangle Shirtwaist investigators, Frances Perkins, would eventually become Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and tell historians there was a straight line from the fire to the social reforms of the New Deal — that now fading moment in American history when a belief in “a public good” boosted much of the working class.

When the shocking news broke that 12 people — including nine children — had died Jan. 5 in an early morning fire that raced through a three-story row house in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority and packed with as many as 26 residents, I reacted with deep sorrow but also with anger.

The details that quickly emerged both about the overcrowding and the lack of some basic fire safety measures were certainly jarring. But the reality is that this Fairmount fire that snuffed out the promising young lives of victims like 14-year-old middle school basketball prodigy Destiny McDonald, her 16-year-old science-loving brother Quintien Tate-McDonald with his “absolute sweetness,” their mom and nine others didn’t happen in a vacuum. Rather, it felt like the exclamation point on a year of living dangerously in America’s sixth-largest city.

Philadelphia’s deadliest fire in decades came just after the end of a 2021 which saw its all-time record for homicides shattered with some 562 murders (and that may be an undercount), with far too many of the victims teenagers or even children who were simply walking or riding or sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Incredibly, yet with less fanfare, the same 12 months may have also brought the city’s all-time high for drug overdoses, with more than twice as many dying in Philly’s streets from this ongoing epidemic than from gunfire. And of course, Black and brown people from the city’s working class — many with little or no health coverage, suffering from preexisting conditions or tethered to “essential jobs” — have comprised a disproportionate number of Philadelphia’s more than 4,300 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic arrived in March 2020.

How much needless death can one city tolerate before it breaks? How much longer will we continue to brag about a city’s economic health because of so many towering cranes building luxury apartments for the sliver of wealth that can afford to live in Center City, when in the very shadow of those cranes some 26 people cram into two public housing units, because the only alternative is homelessness? How loudly will we keep touting Philly as an upscale tourist destination while we whisper in barely audible tones about the deep poverty rate that remains the highest of any of America’s large cities?

Is this unspeakable tragedy, and the loss of nine beautiful children, the moment when we finally scream — like America did once before, after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire — that enough is finally enough?

It’s hard to say, because America is a different place than it was in 1911. Today, we have the “personal responsibility complex” of right-wing politicians and talk radio so eager to talk about large families (although isn’t that the “freedom” they’re always babbling about?) or who’ll want to stop the conversation at the apparent tragedy of a 5-year-old, a Christmas tree and a lighter — and not talk about the systemic failings that start with PHA and radiate through our unequal society.

The “enough is enough” moment happens if we keep talking about what happened in Fairmount long after the vigil candles burn down, and if we push for change on three different levels. In the immediate aftermath of the blaze, my colleagues at The Inquirer have already done yeoman’s work exposing what you might call the “micro” level of our failures to keep residents safe.

They’ve written about the lack of fire extinguishers, sprinklers, fire escapes or hardwired, tamperproof smoke detectors in the upper unit where the victims died. And if Philadelphia doesn’t change laws and find the dollars to change the culture around housing safety, then this city is even more dysfunctional than we thought.

Third, and the most critical, is that we need to change our societal mindset, much as America did once before at the onset of the New Deal, in lifting so many out of poverty and despair. We ought to take a hard look at our priorities and those of our leaders — spending billions on new fighter jets or collecting interest on massive “rainy day funds” — when every day people live in buildings without fire escapes.

Shame on the Republican-dominated state legislature in Harrisburg that last year opted to simply sit on the vast majority of a $10 billion windfall in COVID-19 relief money and state tax revenue.

It resisted pleas from advocates from groups like the Poor People’s Campaign to increase funding for the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund and boost a number of programs that would benefit low-income and working-class families by expanding child care and paid sick leave and restoring antipoverty cash assistance that was ended in 2019.

Shame on Congress — both the solid wall of Republican opposition to anything boosting “the public good” but also the Chamber of Commerce-backed Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema who empower them — for allowing a child tax credit to expire after a brief shining moment when monthly benefits of as much as $300 per kid had cut America’s child poverty in half, and showed us what was possible. And shame on the lack of state and federal support that this week is forcing Philadelphia to shut down its pandemic rental assistance program that has helped out 39,000 families, even as COVID-19 cases are peaking.

Related articles