All the Way Down

March 19, 2013
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All the Way Down

March 25th, 1911. Four thirty-five P.M. Eighth floor. The low chatter of girls and women develops into a high-pitched twitter as heads turn to glance at the clock.

“Ten minutes to quitting time!” one of the women calls, dusting off her apron.

The ladies scuffle about, gathering their meager belongings. The twisting lilt of Hebrew can be detected in the scrabble, flirting on every female tongue. The sun streams through the soot-dusted windows, illuminating every hovering particle, and at last catching on the bouncing curls and soft lips of the hundred girls.

The rugged purr of the dying sewing machines creates a soothing murmur as the ladies turn them off, off, off, hanging up their finished dressings onto the draped wires that spanned the large workroom. Yet a few hastily turn up the pace, needles clattering, as they race to finish their weekly quota. Others dust cloth scraps off their workspaces in big swooshes, the pieces tumbling into wicker baskets below them. One of the older laborers sweeps up her space with her wrinkled hands, and into the basket falls her crushed, smoldering cigarette, embers still faintly glowing.

The tittering ladies queue up by the big iron doors, anticipating a meager, yet sustaining paycheck to be handed to them as they wander out into the open air.

“You want to come over to my apartment tomorrow?” asks one of the younger girls to her friend.

“As long as it doesn’t snow,” her friend responds with a yawn. “It feels so good to get out this early!”

“Tell, me about it,” the girl replies, tying back her hair with a frayed pink ribbon.

“Any moment now-“ her friend says eagerly while massaging her tired, scabbed fingers. “Five- four- three- two- one-“

A harsh cry of “Fire!” pierces the air. The females look around dumbfoundedly, until a few catch sight of a blaze tearing through one of the wicker scrap baskets.

Four forty-five. The first bell rings at the New York City Fire Department, piercing everyone’s ears and breaking us out of our contemplative boredom.

“Where is it?” I ask, scampering up to the man holding the telephone.

“Triangle Shirtwaist Factory!” he booms.

I cease to breathe.

Oh God, please no.

It takes my mind a moment to catch up with my body, which has already jumped into action. I shove my boots up my leg and shrug on my coat, topping it off with the clunk of my hat on my head.

I race to the commander who is directing the flow of sprinting firefighters.

“Which engine?’

“You got seventy-two today, son,” he grunts.

I hop into the red engine and take my place up front, next to the driver. Good ol’ Joseph Zito hops in next to me and wastes no time starting the engine and taking hold of the wheel.

“You ready kid?” he asks with a reluctant grin.

“I don’t think you can ever be ready for this job,” I reply truthfully, heart fluttering.

Zito gives me a rough pat on the back. “You’re more wise than most of us,” he admits, thrusting his foot onto the gas pedal.

I fling my hand over the side of the engine, take hold of the brass bell, and start ringing it furiously. My eyes see spooked people rushing out of the way on the dirty street, but I don’t really look. I’m listening to the bell, and with every knell I hear another beat of my girl’s heart fleeting.

Our tank flies down the two blocks to the factory and swerves around a turn. The ten-story building suddenly springs into view, all shady brown brick and iron, giving the impression of a smoking cigar as plumes tumble out of its upper stories. I rack my brain, trying to recall if she worked on the lower or higher levels. ‘My floor has a great view,’ I recall her mentioning. ‘It helps to let the sun in, and I guess it makes the work a little more bearable…’

…Yes, she is on one of the upper levels. A numb sensation takes over my fingertips as the cold grip of terror grips my chest.

The billowing gray cloud hovers above the building like a tumultuous cumulonimbus, and just keeps rising and swirling, rising and swirling, entrancing the mass of bystanders gradually gathering along Washington Square.


Some of the people jump immediately to the side, but others stand there, dumbly staring at the sky, leaving the alert ones to yank them out of our path.

We manage to break our way through the crowd and we pull up as close as safety permits to the smoldering edifice. A charcoal perfume permeates the air, triggering the gag reflex of anyone standing within two hundred yards. As I swing myself over the side of the engine and begin to unload the necessary supplies, I see Zito already packed and dashing to the North elevator entrance.

“Joe! Wait!” I call, sprinting after him, wrestling to get the supplies on my back as I go. “I’m coming with you!”

“Nuh-uh, kid,” he says without looking back. “This one’s gonna be a doozy. I know you’re smart fella, but leave this one to the vets, okay?”

In a flush of fury I zip ahead of him and punch the left elevator’s button. “Look, I’m going with you, whether you like it or not,” I say, glaring at him full in the face. “And you can’t stop me.”

He sighs and shakes his head. “Fine,” he consents, “But just remember: you are your own responsibility.”

I nod in agreement.

The iron gate guarding the elevator opening slides back, revealing a bare and empty interior. Gaspar Mortillalo, a gruff fireman from engine 33, rushes up to join us.

“Alright guys, according to the call, the fire started on the eighth floor,” Mortillalo relayed. “I say we divide and conquer- there are two elevators and three floors above the source- those are the most vulnerable. I’ll take floor eight.”

“I’ll get ten.”

“Nine,” I chime in.

“I’ll take this freight- Abe and Gaspar, you take the South. Good luck kid,” Zito wishes me with a grim smile. He closes the iron gate and the lift begins to ascend.

We dash around to the other side of the building, and I take a glance at the upper windows as I go. The glass shines a great orange, and I guess that it’s a reflection of the now-setting sun. That is, until I realize that the lights are flickering. Oh God. I run faster.

The freight lets out a harsh beep as the gate opens to the ninth floor. I’m practically suffocated by the abrupt inrush of girls, the sudden blast of heat from the blaze, and the hysterical screams flooding from every mouth.

“Come on! Get in! Fit in as many as you can!” I shout above the commotion, gesturing to hurry. About ten squeeze their way in around me.

I manage to rummage my way to the front of the compartment and I spread my arms wide, forcing the overflow of girls back into the room. “Line up! You’ll be next! He’ll be back!” I shout with no avail. The girls left behind let out pitiful cries of despair as Mortillalo shuts the gate behind me and begins to descend into the darkness.

The room is about fifty yards long, ten feet high, and is nothing but concrete, yet ample fuel sources are scattered about to feed the inferno. It is immediately apparent that the fire is spreading quickly, devouring its way through the plentiful textiles and across the oily floor. A blaze taller than George Washington is ripping through half of the floor, probably after climbing its way up to the roof of the level below. Its flames reach out like little greedy hands and lick at the tables, the scraps, the finished products, the girls. And it just keeps climbing up the draping pieces of cloth, higher and higher… Even being twenty yards away, I can still feel it roasting the exposed flesh on my face.

I find that most of the workers on this floor are amassed by the fire escape doors. My stomach goes queezy as I realize that most of them are only around nineteen- demure young ladies with sweethearts and bright futures. Their pretty faces are wrenched in terror as they shove against the doors, with no success. They push and push against the metal barriers, with not so much as a budge in response. The tumultuous mob is so frenzied that they don’t even notice a tiny thirteen year-old girl with a blue ribbon in her hair being crushed against the wall like road kill.

“LADIES!” I holler. “Ladies! Move away from the door! I can help you!” Unfortunately, the roar and crackle of the fire as well as the screeches of the girls overtake my voice. Yet one girl on the edge of the crowd, her curled auburn bob nearly glowing in the firelight, does hear my cries and turns around. And just as every time I catch a glance of my girl’s face, my heart feels as though it could flutter away.

“Abraham?” she cries out, her voice as lovely as the clinking of china.

“Rebecca,” I gasp, relieved at knowing she is alive, yet horrified that she had not yet escaped the factory. Instinctively my fingers probe the right side of my chest, making sure that the object is still there.

She runs to me, flinging her skinny arms over my shoulders. I squeezed her, burying my face into her shoulder, so that the acid stench of smoke was momentarily replaced by the sweetness of her hair.

“Abe,” she says seriously, taking a step back. “The fire just started up here a minute ago- there are no alarms on this level and the telephone’s broke, so we didn’t have any warning. They lock the escape doors so that we can’t take breaks during the day or steal anything, and the elevator can only be summoned from the ground floor, and-”

She had begun to flail her wrists, as she always does when she gets excited, so I grabbed them to hold them steady. “We are going to get everyone out of here,” I reassured her as I gazed into her worried brown eyes. “Just help me get to the door.”

Together we shove our way to the front of the mass until we are pressed up against the hard metal door. I reach over my shoulder and grasp at something heavy- my heavy-duty pliers. I have to elbow some girls as I try to get leverage on the locked door handle, but finally I get my grip on the thing and put all my weight into it. The locked handle breaks, leaving the other free to swing into the open air.

There is already a thick parade of girls coming down the spindly metal stairs from the tenth floor. The ladies holler with freedom as several of them hurry out onto the escape. Rebecca and I are just about to step out when a shrill creak causes a lurch in my stomach. We exchange looks of horror.

“STOP! NO MORE ON!” I screech, holding Rebecca back in my embrace. “IT”S GOING TO-“

Too late. There is a gut-wrenching creak from the metal staircase, which suddenly swings away from the building, eighty feet over the street. The ladies remaining on it screech as the metal bar holding the structure to level ten twists and snaps. The staircase tips over and folds on itself. The girls lose their footings, their grips, toppling into the air in a fleshy avalanche. I look away.

Thud-dead. Thud-dead. Thud-dead. The girls behind us screech and wail. I shut the doors so there are no more attempts to get out that way.

“Oh my God, oh my God,” Rebecca murmurs, beginning the babbled recitation of an old Hebrew prayer.

“Rebecca, I need you to stay with me,” I tell her, her eyes wide and frightened, but understanding. “Isn’t there another flight of stairs?”

“Yes, the ones to Greene Street,” she replies hastily, already dashing towards them. As I follow behind her, I notice a hose coiled around a faucet attached to the wall. On impulse I grab the hose head and trail it behind me.

Rebecca was already leaning into the stairway entrance, a grimace on her face. “No, this way is blocked!” she relays, followed by a hacking cough as gray smoke curls into her face. “The flames from the eighth floor are already coming up!”

“Did you guys already try the hose?”

“Oh, no!” she exclaims. “I completely forgot we had that! We already used up all the buckets of water!” She rushes to the big steering-wheel shaped faucet and struggles to turn it, though she puts in all her strength. I position myself in the entrance, the roaring furnace just a flight below flitting off the walls like the teeth of a monster and causing a sweat to break on my brow.

Nothing came.

“It’s dry!” I call out.

All of a sudden the flames flare up and barrel up the stairs, lunging towards my face like a spiraling dragon. I yell and jump to the side just in time to avoid getting my ears seared off.

“Oh my God, are you alright?” Rebecca cries.

I look towards the main inferno, which has now spread up to the ceiling and has overtaken around three quarters of the room. I can even make out some of the sewing machines beginning to melt down at its core, creating blazes of blue and purple. And I know we’re running out of time.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I call back, hacking on gray air so thick that it feels like breathing water and makes it hard to see Rebecca’s small frame.

Girls are now scrambling about frantically, the majority crowding around the windows. Groups of four or more little faces press to the glass, waving frantically. Some put their muscle together to slide open the panes, sticking their heads out into the sweet relief of fresh air. Some actually are daring out to step onto the window ledges, fully exposed to the air. They scream and scream for help, but the crowd below just stands and stands.

“Where is Gaspar with that elevator?” I grunt with a cough. I grab Rebecca’s soft, scabbed hand and dash back to the shaft and look down its depths. At the bottom I can see the tiny compartment waiting, its cables frozen in a standstill.

“It must be broken,” Rebecca comments hoarsely, beads of sweat crowning her forehead.

All of a sudden something fell down the shaft from the floor above us. Then another. And another. “Are they throwing bolts of cloth?” Rebecca choked out between coughs. But then there were the high-pitched screeches, and the awful sound of thud-dead. I glanced down at the elevator, but immediately regretted it. The mangled bodies of three women lay in a pile on the compartment, bloody spare change chinking as it rolled away.

I pull Rebecca away from the sight and lead her quickly to the window, our voices joining the choir of yelps.

The firemen below are raising their ladders. But as soon as they do, it’s obvious that they aren’t going to make it to the tenth floor. They come to a pitiful stop at the sixth floor windows. “Oh no,” Rebeccca breathes.

“Spray!” I call down to the firemen on the ground. Valiantly they turn up the water pressure to maximum and make their aim. Yet the stream trickles like a water fountain only up to the eight floor.

A girl below us is standing on a window ledge. I don’t know what draws my eyes to her, maybe her defiant posture, her solemn resolution. Her curls flutter in the breeze, her dress balloons with the updraft. And with the utmost purpose, she steps into infinity.

Rebecca gasps, but I cannot tear my eyes from the girl. She shoots down through the air, and for some strange reason, I am reminded of Jesus’ ascension, except topsy-turvy. She seems almost like an ethereal spirit as she falls, as she flies. I cringe in anticipation.

Thud-dead. She crumples in a heap like a curtain, limbs bent in all the wrong ways, berry-red blood seeping onto the white sidewalk.

The world seems to gasp in unity. Terrified screeches come from the crowd below as well as from the spectators above.

And without warning, another girl, with less grace and precision, drops from the level below to the pavement. She flails, trying to stay right-side up, perhaps to land on her feet as a cat does. Thud-dead. And another, flapping like a goose. Thud-dead.

Soon the sky is raining girls. It’s a constant rhythm of jump, gasp, thud, jump, gasp, thud. The crowd below pleads for them to stop, wait, someone will help, but we all know it’s a lie. The police push back the crowds to make way for the falling bodies, accelerating at thirty-two miles per hour.

Some of them jump in pairs, hand in hand, as though participating in some extreme round of hopscotch. Some fly quietly through the air, like silent swans, others howl as though the devil was being released from their very bones. Some aim for the ladder at the sixth floor, but all end up grasping at air. Some aim for the men with the safety nets and blankets below, but the nets tear like doilies and there is still that terrible thud-dead. In some especially gruesome cases a girl hits a weak spot in the pavement, crashes through the cement, bursts the pipes, and ends up in the basement. I even saw one group try to jump four at a time, losing their balance, tumbling from the ledge and each receiving their own distinct thud.

And I watched them all the way.

I look at Rebecca’s soft, sweet face. Hopelessness casts its dark shadow on her china-doll features as she realizes the direness of our situation. She screams gradually softer and softer, knowing that it’s futile. Her lips are chapped and the back of her neck is turning salmon pink from the heat. Yet she is still… perfect.

I put my lips up to her ear and whisper, “I cannot let you die this way.”

She turns her head to me with wide, glassy eyes. Her primrose-pink lips quiver at my words.

“And… and I cannot die this way either. Not without letting you know first.”

My chest flutters again as my shaking fingers fumble with my jacket, and for a moment I have second thoughts about what I’m about to do. But looking into her innocent brown eyes, and those eyelashes beating like butterfly wings, my resolution holds firm.

My fingers dig into the shirt pocket on the right side of my chest and wrap around the small object. I get down on one knee and hold her hands in mine.

“You’re perfect. In every way. You’re beautiful, kind, and the most wonderful person I’ve ever met. Fortune was on my side the day I met you.”

“You mean the day you nearly lobbed a newspaper into my head because you wanted to get my attention?” she laughs.

“Yeah,” I smile. “I just didn’t know what to say to a girl that pretty. Every time I see you, I can’t help but laugh and smile. When you’re around me, you make me feel like I’m somehow the best man in the world. Like I have magic inside of me, like I’m worth it. Just from the way you talk to me and treat me and look at me.”

I pause, the emotion and the smoke leaving me choked up. Her eyes are filling with tears, and she bites her lip as she smiles.

“And I cannot live without you.”

I press the ring, it’s tiny, sparkling diamond being the most I could afford, into her palm.

“Would you be mine?”

She nods and nods. I take the ring and gently slip it onto her finger.

“I don’t need you to be strong now. You can cry, if you want.”

I stand up, and she jumps to embrace me. Tears roll from both of our eyes, not just out of joy, but out of sorrow that we can feel our last few moments ticking away.

A shriek rips through the air on our own floor. While their backs were turned, a flame crept up and seized a group of young ladies by the skirts. They try frantically to beat it out, just burning their palms in the process. The flame inches up the cloth, closer and closer to their bodices. They race to the nearest window, each fighting the other to get there first. They wrench it open, and one, two, three, four, five blazing torches go sailing out the window, flames whipping behind them like shooting stars.

I look around madly, searching for an escape, some way to save my love. But the inferno was everywhere, nipping at hair and flesh. Ladies scream as their skin is bit by the flames, the toxic smell of seared flesh curling into the air, and more and more shooting stars fall from the sky. A huddle of girls is near us, none older than fifteen, all howling in despair.

I hold Rebecca’s hands firmly as I say, “Love, we have to jump.”

Her eyes flash to the window and fill with fear. “No-no- we could hide in the closet or something-“ She bursts into a violent fit of coughing.

“And suffocate from the smoke? There’s no chance we’d survive, doll.”

“But- there’s no chance of us surviving the jump either!”

“It’s that or we burn to death. Slowly and painfully.”

Her chin droops as she gives in. I lift it up tenderly with a finger.

“We’ll go together. I’ll hold your hand all the way down,” I assure her. She bites her lip and nods. “There’s my strong girl.”

I turn to the huddle of girls. “We have to get them out first.”

I crouch down and explain to the girls the options. They all agree. Yet they are petrified where they sit, and it nearly rips out my heart as I have to coax them to the window.

Rebecca stands by the window, silently supporting me as I climb onto the ledge and lift up the first girl. Her wide gray eyes gaze through my face, mystified and unfocused. It’s as though she’s not actually here, about to drop from a burning edifice and into infinity, but is instead peering past the world and into a fantastic dream, somewhere far away, just as one peers past the glass panes of a window to glance at the scenery beyond. She is limp and unresisting as I grasp her waist and hoist her up, her feet swaying in the wind.

“May God carry you in His arms,” I bless her in a whisper. She gives a vacant nod.

I let go. There is nothing but empty air between my fingers.

Thud-dead. I turn around mechanically to lift up the next one.

I try to keep a cool and calculating demeanor as I quickly complete my task. My mind is vacant of all thoughts. My heart is so hollow that it could echo, yet it remains heavy and hard as lead. My limbs numb over and robotically repeat the task at hand without direction. Lift, bless, drop. Lift, bless drop. None of the girls resist. In fact most of them seem peaceful, having lost all hope and come to terms with their imminent demise fifteen minutes ago. They are ready to face their creator.

But the last girl, the fifth one, changes the routine. “Thank you,” she whispers as she dangles over the edge. She looks me full in the face, her dark eyes smoldering with sincerity. “I couldn’t have done this without you.”

“Just doing my duty, ma’am,” I reply, forcing on a weak smile. “May God carry you in His arms.”


I turn to my girl. She steps up to meet me. She’s mumbling the Shema to herself. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God,-“

“The Lord is one,” I finish.

And for a moment, the roar of the furnace and the heat searing our faces disappears. There is no crowd staring below, no flaming bodies crashing to the ground. It is just her and me, me and this rare beauty, standing in the wind.

She caresses my face with the back of her hand. “I was lucky to have you, if only for a moment,” she whispers. “You are the noblest man I’ve ever met.”

“I’ll be with you to the end,” I promise.

With the whole world watching, I press her soft, warm lips to mine. I hold her chest close to me, so I can feel the rhythm of her heart. It flutters, just like mine.

“Abraham,” she whispers.


We grasp hands, so tightly it hurts. With a heart-pounding, head-spinning leap, my feet fly off the edge.

I hold her hand all the way down.

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Mar. 27, 2013 at 7:27 am
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