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Thursday, December 1, 2011

GAZETTE - Triangle Shirtwaist Co Mock Trial Includes PGFD Officials


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One of the most horrific workplace fires in U.S. history started 100 years ago on March 25, 1911, in New York City after a dropped cigarette ignited piles of leftover cloth in the Triangle Shirtwaist Co., in what is now Greenwich Village.
The fire in the 10-story Asch building killed 146 of the factory’s 500 employees, most of them young immigrant women. That December, factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, immigrants themselves, were tried for and acquitted of manslaughter charges in the death of one of the victims.
On Saturday, community leaders in Bowie, students on the debating team at Montrose Christian School in Rockville, and Prince George’s fire officials will recreate the trial with help from organizers Douglas Kump, a Bowie resident who coaches the debating team at Montrose, and Douglas Adolphsen, who heads adult programming at the Bowie Library.
“It’s a great opportunity to learn how to argue, and it helps develop your speaking skills,” said Michael Gaba, 13, of Rockville, an eighth-grader at Montrose, about his role as Max Steuer, the attorney who successfully defended the two factory owners, who were only charged for one death.
“I didn’t know anything about this before, but I’ve been watching documentaries and doing research,” said Michael, after the participants’ first rehearsal Friday at the Bowie Library.
The mock trials held annually in Bowie began four years ago when Kump met Adolphsen while checking out books at the Bowie Library.
Kump was looking for ways to sharpen his students’ skills for debate competitions, and Adolphsen was looking for ways to involve adults in library activities and promote public discussion.
Participants do not follow a script but need to thoroughly understand what happened so they can play their parts as lawyers and witnesses in the trial that ended Dec. 27, 1911.
Prosecutors failed to convince the all-male jury that the two owners were directly responsible. Many of the deaths were thought to have occurred because managers had locked a ninth-floor door leading to the stairwell on the Washington Place side of the building to prevent thefts of material.
“The owners were called innocent, but they weren’t innocent,” said Michael’s sister, Fidelia Gaba, 11, of Rockville, a seventh-grader at Montrose, who plays a survivor of the fire.
Fidelia said the owners should have been held accountable for the unsafe working conditions in the factory.
Among the adults participating will be Prince George’s County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor of Bowie, who said he welcomed the chance to play the New York fire chief as a way for the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department to interact with the community.
Volunteering with him will be Aaron Tyler, a county fire investigator who will play the city fire marshal, and county firefighter Sara Shaffer, who will play a firefighter who entered the burning building.
“It also shows how far we’ve come and why fire codes are important,” said Bashoor, noting that the visual and audio fire alarms in the library auditorium would not have been present in the New York building 100 years ago.
The Triangle fire spurred more than 30 new labor and fire code laws that helped improved conditions around the country.
Last year, Kump and Adolphsen worked with students to present the trial from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which had been published 50 years before.
In 2008, they marked the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 in which Abraham Lincoln challenged incumbent U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas in Illinois. In 2009, they marked the150th anniversary of the trial of abolitionist John Brown.
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire trial is open to the public and will start at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Bowie Library auditorium at 15210 Annapolis Road next to Bowie High School. There is no charge to attend.
vterhune@gazette.net

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