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A Tragedy, And Now A Triumph

7th-Graders' Project On N.Y. Fire A Winner On History Day

April 29, 2007
By STEPHANIE SUMMERS, Courant Staff Writer

The names of Mary O'Neil, Mackenzie Murphy and Lisa Pinatti sound like those of the young immigrant women who could have worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory at the time of its tragic fire in 1911.

But they are seventh-graders who made it to the state History Day competition in Hartford Saturday with their documentary about the horrific fire that changed New York City's fire code and the insensitivity toward female garment workers for all time.

"My grandma's grandparents worked in a sweatshop in New York," Mackenzie said. "I don't know how many greats that would be."

But besides the empathetic connection to the young women of almost a century ago, Mary, Mackenzie and Lisa are part of a family dynasty at History Day; their older sisters went to the nationals in the group documentary class when they were seventh-graders at Hall Memorial Middle School in Willington. The three older sisters are freshmen at E.O. Smith High School in Mansfield. Other O'Neil and Murphy sisters, who are now E.O. Smith seniors, also competed on the state level.

On Saturday, Mary, Mackenzie and Lisa took first place in the group documentary category for middle schools.

The dynasty and other competitors from Hall Memorial benefit from the expertise of enrichment teacher Pat Pinney, who posts topic ideas, charts project steps, and corrects the spelling of Mendelssohn, for example. Pinney has helped students keep it together when computers crashed, killing whole projects the night before the contest. She once took notes when a judge at the nationals toured with students to point out what he looks for in a winning entry.

And she is proud that even though Mary and Lisa's documentary last year on Mary Lyon, founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, didn't make the national runoffs, it resides in the Smithsonian Institution after it was viewed during the competition by museum officials.

One day during April school vacation, the three girls were huddled around a Mac in Pinney's lab, redoing narration, fixing music glitches and smoothing film transitions.

Mary, Mackenzie and Lisa have a comfortable, sometimes cheeky, rapport, a trio of perfectionists in the editing room.

"We're going to put a fade on that one, soften it," Mary says. "That's good. That's really good."

"'Cuz you put it in there," Lisa teases.

The team, whose 10-minute piece is called "Out of the Ashes: The Legacy of the Triangle Factory Fire," has gathered research and images from books, the Internet and newspaper clippings, and then spliced them together with their own narration, footage from PBS and the History Channel and fresh interviews with experts on elements of the factory fire. They've set it to music that ranges from Scott Joplin's "Solace" to the Schubert "Ave Maria" for the morgue scene.

Supported by parents, they made a trip to the fire site, the former Asch building, now part of the New York University campus, and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where they interviewed its director.

At the site of the fire, they looked down at the street from a window on the ninth floor, where most of the 146 who died were trapped. Bulky machinery, the locked main exit and a useless exterior fire escape thwarted the workers' efforts to escape. In the end, many of them jumped to their deaths, creating one of the most macabre public memories in New York history.

"It was really scary when you saw how far it was," Mary said.

"We had a video clip but we accidentally deleted it," Lisa said with regret.

The girls came in this year knowing they would do the Triangle story. They considered topics that ranged from the Holocaust to Hiroshima to the Sudoku craze, but concluded that Triangle best fit this year's theme - "Triumph and Tragedy."

They know their subject and its impact. They note that owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris got off easy when the court ordered them to pay $75 to each of only 23 families. They will tell you the women worked 13-hour days with one five-minute break and were sometimes beaten, molested or verbally abused.

They can outline the social and legal fallout: firetruck ladders would now have to extend beyond the sixth floor; employers could no longer lock workers in; and the tragedy would breathe life into a new and massive union for women garment workers.

"I would hate to be a witness or a survivor," Lisa said.

"I don't think any person should be treated like that," Mary said.

Their video ends with an anti-Nike poster making it clear that sweatshop issues are current. Only the continent has changed.

The Triangle team, of course, got a little sisterly advice.

"They don't really ask for any help but I can tell that they want it. I always give it," said Kaitlin Murphy, Mackenzie's sister. Two years ago, Kaitlin, Sarah Pinatti and Erin O'Neil made the runoffs at nationals with their Vietnam War protest video. They gave the Triangle video their seal of approval.

Their little sisters, who are all the youngest girls in their families and have been friends since third grade, survived the creative tension of working intensely on the project. "Someone usually ends up giving in," Lisa said.

Would they do it again?

"Maybe, if we three get together again, I would do it" in high school, Mackenzie said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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