Creative Writing on the Shirtwaist Fire: The Tragedy That Struck the Chords of My Heart

My name is Emily Trescott. Today I was walking to work from my small house. The same residency that rooms 7 other women. My roommate and best friend, Audrey, worked across the street from me at the Shirtwaist Factory. She always comes home really late and leaves really early in the morning. There were 500 workers at her building and about 3, including her, live in the same house as me. She said the conditions were horrible, but our rent is $50 a month so she really needs the money.

She claims she is used to the heat, but I think she’s lying because it’s a sweatshop. I felt bad because she is only 16 years old and was trying to bring her family over from Italy. I’m 23 years old and my whole family died in France back in 1899. I immigrated to America when I was only 12 and have only ever lived in New York.

I met Emily a few years later when moving into our current residency.

We have been best friends ever since. I love her because of how eager she is to support her family and how much she cares about them. Normally, she would be working more than 15 hours today, but the workers are accumulating to form a strike. They are protesting the poor treatment of workers and the factories throughout New York’s lack of fire safety. We are raising our sights high in the air and shouting loud enough for all the neighboring facilities to hear. I decided to participate in the strike even though I don’t work there.

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I support the cause and my best friend.

Even though I highly doubt that our strike will help, I had a little hope. I had always been an optimist. Even after my family’s death, I always believed that things could only get better. That’s why I decided to come to America in the first place. It was hard at first, not knowing anyone and hardly speaking the language, but I got a job as domestic service for a very nice family. I loved their children dearly. So much that when I turned 16, I decided to try to get a job as a teacher. Most women my age were asked for their hand in marriage by a rich man from the Upper East Side and they complied because he would supply all their necessities. I knew it would be the easy way out especially since I didn’t need money to support my family. But I was never one to take the easy way out. I didn’t need to rely on a man.

I believed I would marry the day I wanted to start a family and have a kid of my own. But now I’m 23, and still haven’t decided. That isn’t my biggest concern though. Right now, we are back at the house. The strike ended about an hour ago. Half of the 500 workers got fired because they were involved with the strike. Working extra hours, Audrey and the other girls from our building were able to keep their jobs. Audrey still has her job, but she is still upset. The managers aren’t going to do anything about any of the fire hazards or poor working conditions. They keep saying they are “fire proof” and everyone is perfectly safe.

After a few weeks, everything went back to normal. I went to my job and Audrey and the other girls went to their jobs at the Shirtwaist Factory. We have mostly forgotten about the strike and the results. Well, I wouldn’t say we forgot; we just chose not to talk about it. The outcome had thoroughly upset Audrey. It upset me as well but I tried to be there for Audrey. This strike was a bigger deal to her because she works in these conditions.

Nothing much has happened in the past year. I did, however, get laid off. The Shirtwaist Factory was the only building hiring since they fired half of their employees. Being desperate, I’m now working there with Audrey and the other women. Audrey’s brother was able to immigrate from Italy, so now our rent is higher. The factory pays well, but it’s a lot more exhausting than Audrey portrayed and the employers are very difficile. All of them are men. They stay perched on their chairs smoking all day. They fling their cigarette buds all over the floor.

I don’t know how they can willingly sit in the work rooms for hours. We all boil while sewing for 15 hours straight. When we arrive to the house, we eat our raw potatoes that we get 3 times a week because all the time we have to eat. Paying our expensive rent, we normally can’t afford more than 3 potatoes for each of us a week. Our schedules consist of work, sleep, repeat.

We only get about 4 hours of sleep because it takes about an hour to get released -if you’re lucky- because they normally hold us for a couple hours. It’s also an hour walk home. We have to wake up at 3am to get ready and be there 30 till 5am. We get home around 11pm and just go straight into a deep slumber just to repeat the same cycle as the day before. Days, weeks, months go by without even realizing it. Everything’s a blur. I question why I work here, but I need the money for rent just as much as Audrey. I know I could always go off and marry a wealthy man, but I know that someday I will be just as wealthy without compromising my dignity.

Today at the factory, we had a rare fire inspection. This apparently hasn’t happened in 5 years. Checking the first few floors, the fire men were gone in less than 15 minutes. I heard they are friends with the employers and that’s why they didn’t check the top three floors, where we work. I’m nervous about working here, but all I can do is try looking for a job. Having to pay for the rent, I know I’ll be working here for awhile.

I’ve been working here for a few months now because I still can’t find another job. I’m currently walking to the factory with Audrey. The other woman quit and got married. We are the only two from our house still working here. “Why don’t you get married?’ said Audrey “It’s not that simple,” I said. “Why not?” “I don’t honestly know?” “Should I get married?” she asked. “It’s your decision.” “It would make things so much easier” “It would,” I said. I don’t know why she was so suddenly bringing this up. We had never talked about this before.

When we arrived, we went straight to work. Then I saw it… the cigarette bud. It was burning on a piece of fabric, in a pile of fabric, that was flammable. Something bad was about to happen. I immediately stood up and rushed to the door, but it was locked. Great. I then rushed down the stairs without thinking twice. When I finally made it to the bottom floor of the Brown Building, I remembered -Audrey. Oh no. But by the time I make it back up to the second floor, woman are are pushing me right back down.

Everyone is screaming. “This can’t be happening,” I think. I feel sick. How could I just forget about her? If I truly cared about her, I wouldn’t have forgotten her. She has to get out of this building. I couldn’t live with myself if anything happens to her. I need to find her. People are still pushing me out the door, but I stand still now on the main floor. Then it hits me: the door. It was locked when I tried to leave. It must still be locked.

How are 500 women going to escape through the narrow door, meant for only one person at a time, to the stairs? They are trapped. I run outside trying to find an officer to let him know, but I don’t see any officials. Has no one told the fire department yet? Of course not. I think for a second, trying to figure out where the department is located. It’s 5 blocks away. I dart as fast as possible. It feels like an eternity. I couldn’t seem to run fast enough. When I finally make it, I’m so out of breath, it’s hard to speak.

“Fire…Brown Building…people…trapped…..need……..,” I panted. They understood exactly what I was trying to say though. They threw me onto the back of the truck and turned on the sirens. When we finally made it, I felt like it was too late. “No,” I told myself. “No…no. She’s okay. She’s out here somewhere. She’s okay. Everything is going to be okay…” My voice trailed off when I didn’t see her. I hopped off the truck and started pushing through the large crowd of people around the building. Everything smelled like smoke and people were covered in ash. The flames were flying out of the building.

“Audrey!” I hollered. I Couldn’t find her. I knew even if she were alive, she couldn’t hear. Everyone was still screaming, including the girls spilling from the furnace of a building. The police finally arrived. “Officer, I’m looking for my friend Audrey. She’s about 5’3, brunette hair, brown eyes, and very skinny. Have you seen her?” I asked. The look on his face was unsettling. My stomach felt like it had just done a million somersaults. I could tell he didn’t want to be the one to tell me the inevitable truth. She’s gone. I had lost her. All my positivity and optimism had just vanished. It was replaced with the cold, hard truth.

“I’m so sorry ma’am -I would go check over there,” he said while pointing to a bunch of white sheets. Everything slowed down as I walked toward the pile, through the crowd, which seemed to have gone completely quiet. Silence. I can’t hear anything but my heavy breathing and increasing heart rate. I couldn’t think straight. It was all happening to fast. *That’s when the paramedic pulled the sheet back. A lump formed in my throat.

“She suffered major trauma from the fall. The net ripped and she fell through…I’m so sorry for your sorry for your loss,” he said. His words repeated through my head like a broken record: “I’m so loss… I’m so sorry for your loss…” The same words I had heard reiterated for 6 months after my parents had passed, until I had finally immigrated to America.

“Please. No. It’s just a dream. Wake up Emily! Wake up! Wake up……. please…….” I whispered. It was too hard to speak. I couldn’t even tell if I was crying or not until I touched my damp cheeks. This was all my fault. I left her. I could have saved her. But suddenly heat rose to my cheeks, along with anger.

“This is your fault! She would still be here if you weren’t so careless!” I exclaimed. I was now standing in front of the building owner, along with a swarm of other furious people. “You killed them!” one lady screamed. “This is murder!” cried another. I was walking back to the paramedic when everything just stopped. It went completely quiet. But it wasn’t just in my head this time.Everything just went black.

I looked around. Where am I? I’m in a hospital gown with an IV in my right arm. Hospital. But why? That’s when the nurse walks in. “Nice to see that you’re awake,” she says. “Why am I here? What happened?” I ask. “Do you not remember?” I shook my head. “Let me get the doctor,” she said very cautiously. Then she left the room. A few moments later, a tall, elder man walks in with a clipboard. “Emily Trescott?” he asks “Yes, thats me,” I say “So I hear you don’t remember why you are here. Is that true?” I nod. “There was a fire at the Brown Building… I believe you work at the Shirtwaist Factory.

You weren’t injured from the fire, but you did pass out.” It felt like someone had just punched me in the gut. It was all coming back to me. Audrey. “I remember,” i said. “Do you feel well enough to be released?” he asked. “Yes, sir. I’m fine.” “Okay then. Have a nice day. Your clothes are over there.” He waved goodbye then exited the room. I quickly got changed and left. What now? Does Audrey’s family know? It’s been a long year, that’s for sure. The good thing is that a lot has changed for the better.

I finally got married to a nice man who was also part of the worker union. I met him at the march on April 5 to protest the conditions that caused the fire. We have a child, too. We aren’t wealthy, but we make enough to support our family. He works in the fire department and I am a teacher. Usually married women don’t teach, but I love it. We also are the leaders of the worker union. I lost Audrey in the fire and he lost his sister. We have made a lot of progress. Hours have been reduced to a maximum of 54 hours a week.

We also have protested the government to make laws about factory inspections and building codes. Now, we have a factory investigation commission. The building owners got sued and are in jail. But I heard it’s not for that long. We are still fighting for more laws to be passed and my husband is working with the fire department to improve equipment. Everyday, I remind myself that I’m not just helping the future generations, I’m working in Emily’s honor.

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Creative Writing on the Shirtwaist Fire: The Tragedy That Struck the Chords of My Heart. (2022, Dec 17). Retrieved from

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