A Seattle writer brings a monumental tragedy to life again in a book of poetry.
In the hands of a poet, tragedy can move the heart and inform the mind.
That’s the case with a new book by Donald Kentop, a Ballard resident who writes about a deadly tragedy caused by people pursuing a financial goal.
Tuesday we talked about his connection to the event and his book, “Frozen by Fire: A Documentary in Verse of the Triangle Factory Fire of 1911.” His poems made me feel something for the people, and the verses cry out against the causes of their deaths. “It’s not merely interesting history,” he said. “It’s pertinent to what’s going on today.”
Kentop’s book is available at Secret Garden Books in Ballard, and Donald Kentop will read from it at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Good Shepard Center, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N.
The New York City fire killed 147 people, mostly young, immigrant women and girls. They died because the owners of the unsafe shirtwaist factory kept the doors locked so none of the workers could leave or walk away with any material. (PBS has an excellent documentary on the fire).
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The disaster shocked the nation and helped push New York and later the U.S. to adopt better workplace-safety regulations, but it faded for a time as other tragedies claimed attention. Kentop, now 80, studied history and education at New York University, which created classrooms in the renamed building where the workers had been trapped.
The 50th-anniversary commemoration in 1961 brought the fire back to public awareness, and after graduating, Kentop saw the new plaques commemorating the fire and stopped to take a new look at the building. He vaguely remembered having a class there, but had known nothing about its history. The idea that something so horrible could have happened in a place so familiar to him that he didn’t know about stuck with him over the years.
Kentop served in the Army and then worked in sales for a couple of large corporations as a manager. He married a woman from Victoria, B.C., and came west with her in 1962 and raised two sons here.
He retired at 62 after working many years as a drug-and-alcohol counselor at Swedish Medical Center in Ballard and searched for something to do. He made stone carvings for a few years, and then started writing poetry, something he’d done in college.
He wrote a poem about the fire, “The Brown Building.” And later another about Ethel Monick Feigen, one of the girls who escaped the fire. Like many of the young women, she lived with her parents. She got home late, her clothes dirty and her face scratched. Her father didn’t know about the fire, so he beat her while she pleaded for him to stop.
Kentop said he sometimes chokes up reading the last verse of that poem.
“He wouldn’t listen and called me a bummike,
A slut, and I had to go to bed.
I was half unconscious, half asleep.
I guess while I was still in bed they learned the truth, because when I woke up, they were
Huddled all around and kissing me.”
Friends urged him to turn the poems into a book (he’s active in the local poetry community), so he spent about a year and a half researching and writing.
In 1909, Triangle workers went on strike against unsafe conditions and low pay after the company fired 150 workers for trying to join a union. The strikers didn’t get safety improvements, but they did get raises.
Kentop said young people today should see the strike as evidence of the power young people have. Some of the workers were as young as 14.
Business owners warned the raises would kill New York City’s economy. The city thrived.
He writes, “The shirtwaists sewn a hundred years ago in Greenwich Village or in Bangladesh today, depended on the same low pay, thin margins, ruthless competition, threats to move to cheaper countries …”
Triangle’s owners were tried but acquitted, and because they were insured, they actually made a profit on the fire.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there were 4,679 work-injury deaths in the U.S. last year, a 2 percent increase over 2013. Sometimes they die in groups; often it’s one here, two there.
In some of those deaths a preference for profit over people is a factor. There’s no excuse for that.