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Trapped in a Blaze
“No!” I snapped, ripping the shirt out of the sewing machine. Rosa flinched,
“Sorry Patrizia.” She said softly. “I’m trying.” I bit my lip. I hadn’t meant to sound that harsh.
“It’s ok.” I could hardly hear myself speak over the whirr of the hundreds of sewing machines, lined up along the outstretching fabric-littered tables.
“You don’t sew there.” I tried to sound cheerful, hoping to urge that hurt, lost-puppy look out of Rosa’s eyes.
“First you stitch along here.” I traced my fingers along the shirts hems. “And then you tie the knot in this corner.” Rosa just gulped. I turned back to my own machine,
“Do you know what you have to do now?”
She didn’t answer.
I looked up from the shirt to see that Rosa wasn’t even looking at me. Her olive-colored eyes were wandering around the tightly-packed factory, glazing over the rows and rows or woman hunched over sewing machines, rushing to meet the never-satisfied bosses high demands.
Well, it was hardly fair to call them women. At 19, I was one of the older workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Most of us were mere children. In fact, the girl working across from me was only 13 years old.
I checked the clock- 20 more minutes until work ended. Cursing under my breath, I pressed harder on the sewing machine’s pedal, making the needle practically fly through the shirt. The women around me were stepping it up as well, and they seemed just as anxious as I was to collect their pay and go home.
“We don’t have much time left.” I snapped. “Unless you're planning on not putting dinner on the table, we’re going to have to hurry up.”
In we I meant Rosa, who was still sluggishly working on the same shirt, the needle going up and down in almost slow motion.
“Did you hear me?” I snapped. Another shrug.
My first instinct was to lash out and shake her. Work was almost over, and I still a high quota to meet. But under my frustration was a deep laden feeling of guilt.
Ever since we’d left Italy and set foot on American soil, Rosa had been unusually grim and distant. The statue of liberty, which had made me practically weep with joy, did nothing for her. She just stared at the regal green lady, then back at the city and whispered,
Dove sono gli ulivi? Where are the olive trees?
Despite the famine, overpopulation, and cholera that plagued the country, my sister’s heart belonged to Italy.
Before we moved to Manhattan, Rosa and I lived on the same farm together, with our aging parents. Stories of wealth and opportunity had swirled around our impoverished village. The tales of modern cities with buildings that touched the sky fascinated me, and I began to dream of what life there would be like.My dad was turned on by the tales of success as well.
Maybe we can find you a nice American boy to marry. He’d chuckled.
And so, my family started to save up our liras for the boat trip to the land of the free.
Everyone was enthusiastic about moving away from crowded, plague-ridden Italy. That is, everyone but Rosa.Whenever the word “America” popped up at the dinner table, she’d make an excuse, usually “I’m very tired today” and disappear into the bedroom.
Life in America had proved to be anything but wealth and opportunities. It was hardly fair to call the miserable shack we all shared a home. And no American wanted anything to do with us immigrants. They looked down at us as if they were superior, as if we were less human than they were.... I guess that nice American husband was going to have to wait.
To keep food on the table, Rosa and I found work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Even our elderly parents got jobs. All we did was work, work. And when we weren’t working, we were resting and recovering from work, so we would be ready to go to work the next day.
Rosa had been slow to adjust to our new life. She walked around like a lost puppy, and always messed up the shirts she made. Most of the time, I had to fix them up for her before the overseer saw.
“It’s worse here.” Rosa said to me softly one night, before we fell asleep. “We should have stayed in Italy.”
“Oh shut up.” I’d snapped. “You’re just mad you can’t sew your shirts right.”
But sometimes, when I looked at the grim, dirty faces of everyone around me- deprived of deprived of a life, deprived everything but work, I couldn't help but think my sister was right.
“Fifteen minutes exactly.” I did my best to sound cheery as I hastily cut the thread of the sewing machine. I was about to reach for a new, un-hemmed shirt when suddenly, a young girl let out a shrill, scream and jumped out of her seat.
“Feuer!” The girl screeched. I didn’t know much German at all, but you didn’t have to be fluent to understand she meant fire. Everyone stopped working and looked up.
A lit cigarette had dropped on a heap of fabric and bright flames were slowly lapping at the scraps. More girls let out startled cries. A few women ran for water buckets but the whole table was already ablaze, and the water did nothing with tease the ever growing flames.
The scraps of cloth all over the place fed the fire and in a matter seconds, a colossal dancing monster of heat and light had formed. Everyone jumped out of their seats and flocked towards the door, screams rang through the building.
Heart pounding and fear surging through my veins, I grabbed Rosa’s hand and bolted toward the large double doors.
The woman that got to the door first put her hand on the knob and turned it. But the door wouldn’t open. She let out a screech and jiggled it again, but all that did was make the chain rattle. We were locked in.
Panic jolted through my system as girls started pounding on the door. The fire kept growing and growing, eating every bit of material in it’s path. It expanded at a horrifyingly fast rate, turning the factory into a fiery inferno.
There was no more air to breath, just smoke. Clotting my airways, and making the already suffocating heat even more unbearable.
I stumbled as a woman stepped on my dress with her heel. We were all animals, running each other over for the blocked exit, pounding on the door until our fists bled. Sparks flew everywhere, tinging my dress, burning fingertips, and singing my hair.
My head spinning. Partially out of fear, partially out of the dizzying, suffocating heat.
The thirteen year old let out a yelp as she tripped on a turned-over sewing machine. The fire was eating up the wooden floor, charing her shoes. She let out a scream and scrambled forward, but the flames had caught onto her clothes and hair. A look of raw terror flashed in her eyes, and she let out a scream as the fire engulfed her whole.
I tried to run but my feet wouldn’t budge. I just stared at where the girl used to be, the sheer look of terror in her eyes imprinted in my mind like a hard brand.
“Let us out!” The fire reflected in everyone’s eyes, and women continued flinging themselves on the doors, screaming Let us out! in German, Italian, Russian, English,and every other language I’ve heard of. But the door would not budge.
As the flames and chaos of the fiery inferno increased, one thought repeating itself in my mind over and over again: Find Rosa, get her out of here.
A few woman had given up on the door and were dashing through the burning building, dodging sparks and dangerous, charred debris. They flocked towards the elevator, and slid the door open. Find Rosa, get her out of here.
The smoke and heat was making my eyes sting. I saw Rosa’s brown, tied up hair and small, willowy figure, pressed against the door. I grabbed her hand and starked yanking her towards the elevator.
“Come on!” When I opened my mouth, smoke tinged the back of my throat and I let out a loud cough. I stumbled over the debris, yanking Rosa along with me.
The elevator car was already crammed to the maximum, everyone squished inside like sardines. But there was no way I was letting the car go without me.
Determination surged through my veins and I leaped forward, dragging Rosa into the elevator along with me. Our bodies were wedged against everyone else's, and I could hardly breathe, let alone move a finger without hitting someone else.
The door came closed, trapping us all in and panic flared up inside of me. The pungent smell of sweat, char and smoke overwhelmed my nostrils, and I took tiny short gasps through my mouth to avoid smelling it all.
When the car finally hit ground level, everyone flooded out into the streets. I almost ran over the girl in front of me, sucking in the sweet air, shuddering relief to be outside, relief to be alive.
A crowd of astonished spectators had gathered under the burning factory. Firemen were already trying to douse the flames. But the top floors- the one’s that held the flames and all the women, were hopelessly out of reach. Their hoses and ladders were useless, doing nothing but spilling water onto the pavement.
Another flood of girls made it out the fire exit, still screaming and weeping.
“It’s Ok Rosa.” I hugged my sister tightly. “Everything’s going to-” Rosa pushed away from me,
“What are you trying to do?” She snapped. I frowned,
“Trying to do? What do you mean I….oh lord.” The girl standing before me wasn’t my sister at all. She had Rosa's hair and figure….but I had grabbed an entirely different person.
I looked around frantically, pushing past the spectators and traumatized workers.
“Rosa!” I screamed, grabbing girl after girl by the shoulders and turning them around, hoping desperately to see the familiar, gentle face of my sister. But all I was able to find were the dazed faces of total strangers.
“Patrizia!” I looked up. The factory was alive with screams, but I was sure heard my sisters shrill cry over the rest. Impossible. I chided myself. Rosa wouldn’t be able to scream that loud with all that smoke.
“Patrizia!” My heart skipped a beat.
By the third cry, I knew for sure I wasn’t imagining. My sister was still up there, trapped.
The elevator dumped out another flood of terrified employees, and more came running out of the fire exits. I scanned everyone's faces. Rosa was not among them.
Suddenly, I heard a huge roaring crumble. The sickening sound of wood cracking, metal beams snapping, and cement turning into rubble.
Shrill screams and cries sounded as the elevator collapsed under it’s tremendous weight, sending its passengers plummeting to their deaths. I cried right along with them.
“Patrizia!” Rosa screamed again, and I was flooded with a momentary relief that at least Rosa wasn’t in the elevator. But she was still in the inferno. The searing oven, baking not bread, but people.
The fire exit. I tried to reassure myself. Rosa can still make it out the fire exit.
But soon, I heard more loud screams and the sound of metal creaking and groaning, before finally giving way. The fire exit collapsed under the heat and it’s heavy burden. More girls plummeted to their death, and the wood and metal followed them down.
Along with the girls and rubble, fell the last hope of escape.
Tongues of flame were curling out of the windows, and I could smell the smoke from all the way down here. My neck muscles strained from looking up for so long. But I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the flames. Rosa, poor Rosa.My body wanted to scream and cry but the tears wouldn’t come.
I could only imagine how oppressively hot and ablaze the factory was now.
Suddenly, a bundle of rags toppled out of the window and came plummeting down the building, falling story after story. Perhaps they’re throwing out the burning clothes. I thought. The bundle came close into view before finally hitting the floor with a hard thud.
I flinched and all the other spectators murmured to each other. A bundle of clothes wouldn’t have hit the floor that hard. Unless...no, it couldn’t be.
A wave of nausea overwhelmed me,and I slowly peered at the bundle. I almost threw up when I saw that my suspicion was confirmed. What had fallen wasn’t clothes- it was a woman.
I looked up again. To my horror, girl after girl was approaching the windowsill, the flames licking at their backs. They leaped off the building, flying momentarily, before hitting the pavement with a hard thud.
It was raining girls, some flailing their limbs, others floating, with their arms spread out as if they expected the wind to catch their nonexistent wings.
Spectators gasped and let out shocked cries. The firefighters shouted at each other and blankets and safety nets were held out. But the girls were falling at such a speed that the blankets proved useless and they ripped under the women’s weight.
Thud, thud, thud. Each thud pushed the image of the dead girls, littered all over the pavement deeper and deeper in my mind. Thud, thud, thud.
Another figure approached the window. A small, delicate girl with brown hair closed her eyes, balancing carefully on the windowsill. Then she closed her eyes, and jumped.
“No!” I screamed. “Rosa!” I ran to the side of the building she was falling off of, my heart pounding.I didn’t know what I was trying to do, it wasn’t like I would be able to catch her. But it felt so wrong just standing there.
Finally, exhaustion got the best of me, and I skidded to a stop. I stood there, panting, surrounded by horrified spectators.
I was now one of them, watching helplessly as Rosa flew downwards, like an angel without wings.
She was so close now, I could see the panic in her eyes. She flailed her arms for a moment, as if trying to propel herself upward. But her attempts were useless and she came down, hitting the pavement with a sickening thud.