NEW YORK -- The last survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire celebrated her 100th birthday Friday, with memories of horrified screams and choking smoke still vivid from the city's worst industrial fire.
Pauline Cuoio Pepe was not quite 20 years old when the fire started March 25, 1911, on the eighth floor the 10-story Asch Building, east of Washington Square in Greenwich Village.
The stone and brick structure, owned by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, had been considered fireproof.
The blaze took the lives of 146 of Pepe's co-workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian women who, like Pepe, had immigrated to New York's crowded Lower East side.
On her 100th birthday, the horror of the fire still haunts the frail, white-haired woman, now a resident of the Broadlawn Manor Nursing Home in Amityville on Long Island and the last known survivor of the disastor.
'I was just fixing my hair and putting on my coat,' when the fire started about 4:30 p.m. that day, she recounted in an earlier interview with 'Justice,' the newspaper of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
Seeing the flames, Pepe, then a sewing machine operator, ran with scores of other terrified young women to a door, only to find it was locked.
'There were about 100 people right next to the door,' she said. Screaming and choking, they raced down a staircase when the door finally was opened from the outside.
'We saw people throwing themselves out the window, but I said, 'I wouldn't do it,'' she recalled.
'We went down the steps. We didn't count them. We tumbled over. It was a long way and we were so nervous. When we came down, the firemen wouldn't let us out because the young girls were throwing themselves out. We had to stay in the entrance until they saw that nobody came down,' she said.
It was the worst such fire in the city's history and it galvanized a series of national reforms leading up to the New Deal and National Labor Relations Act decades later.
Triangle's owners were acquitted of manslaughter and the company was handsomely reimbursed by its insurance company for its losses. By one account, it received almost $65,000 more in benefits than it could prove was lost.
But young Pauline Cuoio never returned to garment work. She married a musicisn, Joseph Pepe, and they had three children.