Once upon a time, when the Stanley family was living in its first new home at 122 Newton St., a tragic announcement came over the kitchen radio.
Though it was 47 years ago this week, I remember listening to the 11 o’clock news. Tom Phalen started the newscast with news that the water on Franklin Square, which had been 5 feet deep, was now receding. It was one of those moments in my life that seemed like “The Twilight Zone.”
My office was on Franklin Square, and I wondered how could there be 5 feet of water in the square at 11 at night. Where did it come from?
I got dressed and raced downtown, parking in front of City Hall where all the fire equipment was located because Central Fire Headquarters also was threatened.
The water on Bath Street and behind the Norwich Bulletin was like a huge lake. Within a half hour or so, I was allowed to go down Bath Street to my office on the corner of Bath and Franklin — Cooley & Co.
The street was covered with mud. The water mark on my office window was about 5 feet high.
As I opened the door, water rushed out with thousands of peanuts. Looking around Bath Street and Franklin Street, there were thousands of peanuts everywhere.
Longo’s Fruit Stand had occupied that corner for years, and when Tony Longo went out of business, he left in the basement bags of peanuts, which found their way onto the street that tragic night.
No one really knew yet where the water had come from, but it was a flash flood caused by the Spaulding Pond at Mohegan Park.
Earlier in the day, the Public Works Department had received a call from one of its employees who had noticed a small leak in the earthen dam at Mohegan Park.
It was thought to be of no importance, but by 9 p.m. March 6, 1963, that little leak had turned into a torrent of water that cascaded through the woods, across East Baltic Street and Hickory, along Brook Street onto Broad Street at Centennial Square, down through the Lake Street Playground, along Pond Street to Franklin Street, onto the square and ultimately to the Shetucket River.
It was a wall of water, a tidal wave. On the crest of the wave were huge blocks of ice that worked like battering rams. Many, the size of a kitchen table, were two feet thick.
Danger at a Mill
Crossing Centennial Square, the workers at Turner Stanton Mill were in danger. They rushed to the upstairs window to see what the commotion was. A veteran policeman, John Sullivan, warned them not to do that. He was not on duty at the time, but was aware of the path the flood would take.
He ran to the mill to alert the employees. Everyone on the first floor got out. He yelled to those on the second floor to get out, but they felt they would be safe.
He begged them to get out, but they remained. The rest of his life, he regretted that his warnings were ignored.
Instead, the employees on the second floor raced to the window to watch the flood pass like a giant waterfall.
It was a fatal error, for the cascading ice washed away the lower floors and five people — Madeline Atterbury, Helen Roode, Alexander Pobol, Anna Louise Barrett and Mae Caroline Robidou — were killed as the mill collapsed.
Farther down on Lake Street lived the Moody family. They were alerted of the pending flood by their upstairs neighbor, Tony Orsini. They lived on the ground floor. They all got into the family car and headed for Boswell Avenue. As they passed the Lake Street Playground, the car was struck by a 10-foot tidal wave.
The three adults were able to open the door, and in the freezing water, the three children were passed from the car to Orsini, who stood on the roof of a shed nearby. All were safely out of the car except the mother, Margaret. As they reached to help her, the water rolled the car over.
Margaret was found the next morning. She was the sixth fatality.
State of Emergency
Gov. John Dempsey arrived the next morning and declared a state of emergency. The Coast Guard, Navy, Army Corps of Engineers, Red Cross, Salvation Army and news agencies from around the country came to Norwich.
As a result of that flood, new laws were passed calling for inspections of earthen dams. Thirty-seven merchants were on the verge of bankruptcy because none of them had flood insurance.
Harold Walz was public works director, and he and his men worked to restore the city. The Norwich City Council, under the leadership of its president, Henry Lucas, organized a recovery effort.
The council included Armand Beauregard, Stanley Israelite, Ethel McWilliams, Martin Rutchik, John Ryan, Philip Shannon, Kenneth Johnson and Del LePre.
There were acts of heroism, such as Father Francis O’Keefe, who, with the help of volunteers, climbed over the wreckage at Turner Stanton Mill to deliver the sacraments to the dead and dying.
Lucas appointed me, attorney Milton Jacobson and others to raise money to rehabilitate the uninsured merchants.
In the following weeks, with the help of John Cameron Swayze of the NBC “Camel Caravan News,” we reached across the country and received enough money to restore 36 of 37 businesses. One business decided not to reopen.
I remember, as the dawn’s light cast its long shadows on Norwich that morning, the Army Corps of Engineers, with earth-moving equipment, was plowing mud 6 inches to 8 inches deep on Franklin Square.
The health department condemned everything that had been touched by the contaminated flood waters. The food from the food stores, the flour from the bakeries, the rolls of newsprint at the Bulletin, all of the furniture and records in our brokerage firm and all business along Franklin Street, had to dispose of their merchandise.
It was, in a manner of speaking, a “Twilight Zone” event. A flood on a clear night in March was the last thing anyone was prepared for.
Looking back on the small leak in the earthen dam, I am reminded of the commercial on television in which a big dam has a small leak and an inspector puts some chewing gum over it and says, “That ought to do it.”
If only the small leak had been given proper attention, six lives and millions of dollars in damages could have been avoided.
We all have to remember the story we learned in school of the little boy who put his finger in the dike and saved Holland. All of us who are old enough to remember find it hard to believe the horror that befell Norwich occurred 45 years ago Thursday.