More than 100 years ago, inadequate safety and labor laws resulted in the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that took the lives of 146 people in New York City. Most of the victims were young immigrant women and teenaged girls working late at the clothing factory. Most died from smoke inhalation but some jumped out of the burning building because they could not get to the exits.
Since then, many laws have been passed to prevent such tragedies. Yet similar catastrophes continue to happen all around the world, including the US. (According to Wikipedia, in less than 2 years, from January 2021 to October 2022, a total of 441 people died from being trapped in burning buildings.) For example, on 5 January 2022, a fire in a Philadelphia apartment killed 12 people, including 9 children. Only 2 days later, in a Bronx apartment, another fire killed 17 people, including 8 children.
All these victims died because they could not escape the fires.
The EXIT sign is one of the most important safety requirements in buildings. These signs are also symbols of escape from all forms of danger, but especially fires. Traditionally in the US, exit signs have been red. Though some states have switched to green exit signs, NYC still requires red letters on all their exit signs.
(The color red is associated with danger and chaos. Also, people have been conditioned to “stop” at red lights. The color green is associated with safety and calm, and peopled have been conditioned to “go” at green lights.)
The Memorial is composed of 146 exit signs installed on the exterior wall of the building, around the windows where the flames and smoke billowed on 25 March 1911: one sign for each person who lost her or his life in that fire.
The distribution of the signs suggests a shirtdress, the fashionable item of women’s clothing the victims were laboring over before the fire broke out. The cables between the signs remain exposed, symbolizing the linked fates of the victims.
Under the word EXIT on each sign is inscribed the name and symbol of faith of each victim. Their descendants may place an object in a small shrine within the sign.
The dedication of the memorial is meant to commemorate the victims. Hence, it commences on the anniversary of the fire, on March 25th, at 4:45 p.m., when the first fire alarm sounded. First, memorabilia are placed in the shrines by the victim’s representatives. Then the signs are attached to the building. Next, each victim’s name is read out loud, and as person is named, her or his sign lights up in red.
When all the signs are lit, the surrounding bricks and glass reflect the red light, reminding people of the devastating fire that took place there, on Washington Place and Greene Street. Then, slowly, the red light changes to green.
All the exit signs, now in green, represent the passing of the 145 victims’ souls into peace and rest. The emerging green light imparts new hope and joy for living, as spring welcomes new life on earth.
The dedication is a one-time event. However, the signs can be lit annually. The signs can start glowing gradually at 4:45 p.m. After 15 minutes, they will reach their maximum intensity. Then they will grade to green. They will begin to fade until they shut off completely at 5:15 p.m. Their impact might be intensified by the reflection of the sky in the windows and the reddish glow of the evening sun.