Once upon a time, there was a terrible explosion in Norwich, and much like Middletown last week, it resulted in the deaths of four uniformed firemen. It was, and may still be, the worst loss of life in the history of Connecticut among firemen at a single fire.
It was April 1962 and a cold, clear, crisp day. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was on my way to City Hall to see former mayor, now judge of probate, Ed Moran.
As I walked up Bath Street, the fire siren began to blow. I stood at the corner of Bath Street and Broadway. As I recall, Engine 1 and Squad from Central Fire Headquarters came up Chestnut Street, across Union Square. In those two trucks were all men I knew. I waved at them, and, with big smiles, they all waved back. Little did we know that they were on their last fire call, and in a few minutes they would be killed.
I heard the explosion in the office of Judge Moran. The windows trembled in City Hall, and we could feel the shock. That explosion was so powerful it was heard in New London. Many windows in houses for a mile or so were blown out. The beautiful stained glass windows in Christ Episcopal Church were completely blown out. That terrible blast instantly took the lives of four of Norwich’s bravest, courageous men who had served this town so well.
What happened? The Van Tassell Storage Co. was a warehouse, and it had recently unloaded chemicals that, more properly, should have been stored in a blockhouse or warehouse designed for dangerous chemicals — the type the military use.
While they were unloading chemicals on the platform, one of the containers that had broken in transit was leaking, and there was a chemical reaction generating extreme heat. The driver of the truck had noticed the fire.
He knew the truck and warehouse were filled with highly explosive chemicals. He ran into the warehouse and told everyone to leave, because there was going to be an explosion.
Chemicals in Building
There was a fire box alarm, but someone also called fire headquarters. Dispatcher Bill LaFleur said there were explosives on the truck. LaFleur notified the men, who were just returning from a grass fire in Greeneville, that there was explosive danger, but that they should make haste, and they left Central.
When the first six firemen arrived on the scene, they knew of the danger. They took positions behind a 4-foot-high, solid cement retaining wall for protection. As firemen, they were afraid of blowback. A seventh fireman turned on a hydrant some 600 feet away and waited for the signal to charge the line. It was on full pressure.
From what they thought was a safe position, the firemen behind the wall directed their fellow fireman to turn on the water. As the water hit the truck, it exploded with power beyond belief.
Tom LaFreniere, to this day, wonders why he was able to survive. He has told me on several occasions he recalls an instant ball of fire engulfed them all. That explosion killed four firemen and shattered the lives of so many good families in Norwich. The names of these wonderful men are memorialized on the plaque at fire headquarters. We should all remember them: Capt. William J. Sheridan, firemen Carl J. Burke, Leonard M. Counihan and Ed Romano.
LeFreniere was 33 years old. Firefighter Thomas DeMauro also was 33. It was a miracle these two survived.
It had been raining the day before and all night. There were large puddles of water at the foot of the embankment and against the short retaining wall. As it happens, the water proved a miracle that saved them both. With their bodies on fire from head to toe, they were able to splash water on themselves and put out the flames on their faces, hair and clothing. They lay on the ground, face down, because they realized the fire was burning up all the oxygen.
There were repeated explosions that kept occurring, and the fire over their heads was similar to the Marine Corps flame throwers. It was intensely hot and, by all odds, they should have proved casualties.
It wasn’t bad enough that there were explosive chemicals, but in the building there also contained 200 tons of charcoal briquettes that burned with such heat that it literally melted one piece of fire equipment. A door had been blown off one of the fire trucks, and it lay close to LaFreniere, who pulled the door over his head for protection.
This morning’s picture was taken by Bob Dick, then-photographer with The Norwich Bulletin. LaFreniere was in shock as the police sergeant, John Sisco, pursues LaFreniere, which again may have saved his life.
LaFreniere was on his way into the flaming building to save his fellow firemen. Sisco realized he was in shock and didn’t know what he was doing.
Tom LaFreniere is married to Betty Coletti, and they enjoyed their winters in Florida. He is most grateful to be alive, but seldom do we fail to talk about that terrible day when we get together, Tommy and I.
The laws in Connecticut were changed so chemicals, so explosive, could not be stored in populated areas.
The story of the Norwich explosion was news coast-to-coast, as was the Middletown explosion.
Big news. In Middletown, as I write this column, there are five dead. The explosion in Norwich was four, but they were all firemen who died in the service of this community. I thought, especially today, after the Middletown disaster, we should remember those who gave their lives in a similar explosion in Norwich.