Saturday, March 26, 2011

Centennial Anniversary: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the fire that ravaged the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. It was the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City's history and ranks fourth in loss of life in industrial accidents in the U.S.

The Asch building, whose eighth, ninth, and top floor housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, lay in the Greenwich Village area of New York City. In case you're curious, shirtwaists are basically just blouses. The factory specialized in making them and mostly employed young immigrant women. Most who worked there were either Jewish or Italian. The factory typically worked five hundred women total who worked an average of nine hours on a weekday, and seven on Saturday.

Smoking was banned in the factory, and for good reason. They were working in a textile mill and a single spark could ignite clothing. That didn't stop some of the workers though, who sneaked cigarettes in and tried to smoke without getting caught. On March 25th, 1911, the worst thing that could of happened, happened. Someone had thrown the but of their cigarette into a trash bin which had scraps in it and eventually the whole thing caught fire. The fire quickly spread in the environment and people on the eighth floor started to panic. There was a phone line to the tenth floor from the eighth, but none to the ninth and no audible alarm for a fire, so there was no way the eighth floor could tell the ninth what was happening. That's just bad planning. Unfortunately for the people on the ninth, who found out about the fire when it was clearly visible, the fire had enveloped the stairs going downward that they could use to get out and the other staircase was locked to keep people from stealing. The foreman who had the key had already escaped. Some of the women either went up the stairs to the roof or crammed into the two freight elevators while they were still working. After three minutes, the stairs became unusable.

Many of the women from the ninth tried to escape the fire by getting out onto the fire escape which was a flimsy iron structure that may of been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload and spilled victims nearly 100 ft to the concrete below. The elevator operators took many trips to get as many women from the ninth but during one of the trips some of the women had forced the elevator doors open on the ninth and jumped down the elevator shaft, making the elevator unable to be used anymore. By this time a crowd had gathered outside the building. The first person to jump was a man, and another man was seen kissing a young woman at the window before they both jumped to their deaths. The crowd witnessed sixty-two more people jumping or falling to their deaths from the top floors, who piled upon the already large amount of bodies around the building. There were so many bodies that the fire department had extreme difficulty getting close to the building. The fire department didn't have a ladder that could reach over the sixth floor and were not able to put out the fire in time to save any of the people that chose to stay inside the burning building.

In total, 146 people died from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. 129 women and 17 men. Six of the victims remained unidentified until 2011. The owners were indicted on charges of first and second degree manslaughter for locking to doors of the stairway, thereby dooming many people. After their lawyer destroyed the credibility of one of the survivors however, they were acquitted. It was determined that the owners did not know that the doors were locked at the time. In a later suit brought against them, they ended up having to pay $75 each to each victim's family. One of the owners was later punished for locking the doors in his other factory. His fine: $20.

While some saw this as an opportunity to band together into unions, others saw this as a time to take a good long look at factory conditions. In 1915 an investigation was started to look at the conditions of different factories around the city. New York City's Fire Chief John Kenlon told the investigators that his department had identified more than 200 factories where conditions made a fire like that at the Triangle Factory possible. Thanks to the investigation, there was a huge push to modernize labor laws and to improve factory conditions and their fire safety. It's too bad that we have to go through a terrible tragedy to wake us up and tell us we need to change how we do things.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

D.B. Cooper

"In today's post 9-11 society, the possibility of an airliner being hijacked by a lone criminal who escapes without ever being caught or positively identified is both deeply disturbing and highly unlikely. But on November 24, 1971, before the days of airport metal detectors and other stringent security regulations, one polite, well-dressed man did exactly that. "

"What's more, his apolitical and 'stick-it-to-the-man' motivations, relaxed threats, and willing release of innocents earned him a community of supporters who deemed him a modern-day Robin Hood. And, at the time, anti-establishment types were in vogue. Thirty-five years later, with no new leads, the FBI is still trying to uncover the true identity of "Dan Cooper," the man behind the only unsolved commercial skyjacking in U.S. history, a man who seemingly vanished into thin air."

"On a rainy afternoon at Oregon's Portland International Airport, a middle-aged man wearing a dark suit with a slim tie and mother-of-pearl tie clip purchased a one-way ticket on Northwest Orient Airlines to Seattle, Washington. He paid $18.52. The name on the reservation was Dan Cooper. After taking his seat in the last row of the Boeing 727 aircraft, he ordered a bourbon and Coke from an attractive flight attendant, 23-year old Florence Schaffner. Then he lit a Raleigh filter-tip cigarette and settled in for the ride. According to the flight staff, Cooper was cordial, tipped generously, and had a smooth demeanor. In fact, when he handed Florence a piece of paper to let her know that he was toting a bomb in his briefcase, she slipped it into her pocket unopened, assuming he'd simply passed along his phone number, as many male passengers before him had done. But Cooper urged her to open the note. The note threatened to blow up the plane if Cooper's demands weren't met:

$200,000 in unmarked $20bills, four manually operated parachutes (two chest and two back), and a fuel truck waiting in Seattle to refuel the plane. "

"Northwest Orient president Donald Nyrop instructed the pilot to cooperate, and the FBI scrambled to meed Cooper's demands, while at the same time preparing to apprehend him. When the plane finally landed in Seattle, Cooper released all 36 passengers and two flight attendants, leaving only himself and four airline employees on board as the plane was refueled. Bags filled with the cash, weighing a total of 21 pounds, were delivered as promised. As the plane left the runway, this time in a heavy storm, Cooper gave the pilot specific instructions: Keep the plane under 10,000 feet, wing flaps at 15 degrees, and speed under 200 knots. He then ordered everyone into the cockpit, strapped the money to his waist, put one chute on his chest and one on his back, opened the plane's rear door, and plunged into the darkness somewhere over the dense pine forests and deep canyons of the Cascades in southwestern Washington."

"The search for Dan Cooper, or any shred of his whereabouts, was on. For several weeks, the FBI scoured miles of forest for a body or any evidence of a landing-successful or otherwise. But the case code named NORJAK, offered investigators precious few clues. They knew that Dan Cooper was an alias. But police brought a man named D.B. Cooper in for questioning shortly after the hijacking and alerted the media, who confused his name with the name used by the jumper. Although D.B. Cooper was quickly ruled out as a suspect, his name would be forever linked with the crime. The FBI also worked with a composite sketch and personality profile of the suspect, based on the flight crew accounts, and-decades later-a DNA sample from his tie (he took it off before he jumped), obtained in 2001. The number of suspects totaled close to 1,000 over 30 years. Many who couldn't possibly have been Cooper falsely confessed to committing the crime, often just before their final breaths. Of the handful of suspects who were seriously considered, Kenneth Peter Christiansen was a favorite. To many, Christiansen seemed to be an obvious match."

"A former paratrooper in the army, Christiansen had extensive sky-diving experience and was accustomed to no-frills equipment and brutal landings. As a retired flight attendant and purser for Northwest Airlines, he was obviously well-versed in airline procedures-plus, he was living in Washington at the time of the crime. He smoked Raleigh cigarettes and collected bourbon. And he supposedly bore an uncanny resemblance to the composite sketch-at lest according to his brother Lyle, who recognized his face while watching Unsolved Mysteries on television. Civilian researchers theorized that Christiansen's motive was retaliation against an airline known at the time for unfair employment practices (mainly against women) and layoffs that led to frequent strikes, which helped to further fuel the Robin Hood syndrome. FBI investigators, however, were not convinced. Deviating form their original assumption that the hijacker was an experience jumper, they ultimately ruled that only a novice would have jumped under those impossible conditions, and without first checking his chutes. (He jumped with one designed for training, which had a sewed-shut reserve chute.) They also contended that Christiansen, who died in 1994, did not resemble the man in the sketch after all and therefore could not have been Cooper. And so the search continues."

"Although, they firmly believe that Cooper could not have survived the jump, the FBI is still determined to get their man, at least on paper. On December 31, 2007, the Bureau revived the 36-year old case by releasing to the press and public details and evidence surrounding the case, including photos of the deteriorating $20 bills ($5,800 total was recovered) that were found on the banks of the Columbia River on the Washington-Oregon border in 1980. (The FBI matched the serial numbers on the bills to those delivered to Cooper, but nothing more came of the discovery.)"

"Immortalized through books, movies, music, airline safety features, and even an annual festival in Cowlitz County, Washington, the man known as Dan Cooper continues to elude capture, if only in spirit."

Most of you have probably never heard of D.B. Cooper unless you are my parents age. His name does come up these days though, as evidenced in his most recent portrayal in the 2005 show "Prison Break." A character in the first season of the show, Charles Westmoreland, is popularly believed to be D.B. Cooper, though he denies that fact. At the end of the season he later confirms the claim.

*D.B. Cooper Update*
I just read in the news that there has been a new person implicated in the search for the identify of the hijacker. A woman named Marla Cooper claimed that her uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper was the infamous D.B. Cooper. When Marla was eight she remembered seeing her two uncles planning something suspicious at her grandmother's house, then coincidentally flight 305 was hijacked the next day. She remembered seeing her uncle come home the same day with a bloody shirt and claiming that he was in a car accident. Her parents even surmised that he was the infamous hijacker later in life. She also remembered that her uncle, who died in 1999, was obsessed with the Canadian comic book hero, Dan Cooper, to the extent that he had an issue of the comic thumb tacked on his wall. Marla submitted a photo and a guitar strap to the FBI for fingerprinting but the FBI has yet to find any fingerprints on the items. The investigation is ongoing.

Article from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader: Golden Plunger Awards, 2008.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

St. Patrick's Day

St. Patrick's Day is unlike any other religious holiday. It has by far gone the farthest away from its roots, and by that I mean now-a-days many don't go to church on the day or do anything religious. Instead, we all wear green and celebrate the Irish. Oh, and we all get totally hammered. I mean drunk out of our minds. It's supposedly not as bad as New Years but I have my doubts. I worked at an Irish Pub for a few years and I can say without a doubt that St. Patty's Day causes people to get loud, surly, or actually pretty happy. This is a classic example of a religious holiday mainly becoming secular. People still go to church for Easter and Christmas, though there is more focus on Santa and the Easter Bunny now. St. Paddy's Day lets us all pretend we're Irish for a day, if being Irish means you get drunk and fight people. I actually am Irish, and resemble a leprechaun, so there you go!

St. Patrick's Day comes from the Patron Saint Patrick. Patrick was born in Roman Britain in the 4th century to a wealthy family. At the age of sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken captive to Ireland as a slave. According to his confession, he was told by God to flee from captivity and return home to Britain. Upon arriving back to Britain, he quickly joined the church and studied to be a priest. In 432, he again said that he was called back to Ireland, though as a bishop, to Christianize the Irish from their native polytheism. Irish folklore tells that one of his teaching methods included using the shamrock to explain the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to the Irish people. After nearly thirty years of evangelism, he died on 17 March 461, and according to tradition, was buried at Downpatrick. Although there were other more successful missions to Ireland from Rome, Patrick endured as the principal champion of Irish Christianity and is held in esteem in the Irish Church.

Blue was actually the official color of St. Patrick, but as the years went on he became more associated with the color green. Green ribbons and shamrocks were worn for St. Patrick as early as the 17th century. The color was further used in a 1798 rebellion in which the Irish wore green to stand out to the Irish people.

It wasn't until the 9th century that St. Patrick's Day came into being. It was at this time that people plainly associated St. Patrick with Ireland and dubbed him the Patron Saint of Ireland. A feast to commemorate St. Patrick was started in the early 1600's and continues to this day on the 17th of March unless it falls on the Holy Week. The Holy Week consisting of Fat Tuesday, Palm Sunday, and Ash Wednesday. This has only happened twice though, as the date of observance changed in 1940 and again in 2008. This change however only affects the Catholics and Protestants that observe it as a holy holiday. It didn't matter that the date had changed for Catholics and Protestants in 2008, people still celebrated on the 17th, as more of a secular party.

St. Patrick's Day became an official holiday in Ireland in 1903. It was later decided that drinking was getting out of hand on the day so they made it illegal to have bars open on the 17th. That lasted until 1970 when it was finally repealed. Though there is a secular side to the celebration in Ireland, it's still mainly a religious holiday there, celebrated by members of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland. A day long festival was started in Dublin in 1996 though parades had taken place for many years before. The day long celebration has now grown to a five day festival that attracts over a million people.

St. Patrick's Day has been celebrated in America since the thirteen colonies. Early Irish immigrants celebrated the day to celebrate their heritage, though they were mostly Protestant at that time, not Catholic. The celebrations became more commonplace in the late 1700's and were centered in Boston and New York City. Since 1991, March has been declared Irish-Heritage month in the USA. This is of course due to St. Patrick's Day falling in the month. This follows in the tradition of America making it up to groups of people we have wronged by giving them a month.

St. Patrick's Day today in America is marked with a bunch of people wearing green (or else they'll get pinched), and the tradition of drinking with friends at bars and pubs. Several cities dye their rivers green in celebration, most notably in Chicago. Parades in celebration of Irish heritage take place in countless cities and even sports teams get in on it and wear green if they are playing on the day.

So, however you choose to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, either by going to church and remembering St. Patrick's sacrifice for the Irish, or by drinking with friends and wearing green, be safe and have fun being Irish for a day. Oh, and eat some Lucky Charms! MMMMM red balloons.

Recommended St. Patrick's Day movies:

-Darby O'Gill and the Little People (you know you want to see Sean Connery sing!)

-Waking Ned Devine

-Far and Away

-The Quiet Man

-Leprechaun (not really...unless you like horror movies with a young Jennifer Aniston)

Additional Recommendation:

-Any episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.