50 years later, memories of Van Tassel fire still smolder

Left, Robert "Red" McKeon of the Occum section of Norwich, the retired fire chief of the Occum Fire Department, stands near the department's  Engine 41 Thursday as he recalls his role in the Van Tassel fire in Norwich 50 years ago. McKeon is still an active member of the department.  Below, The explosions caused by a chemical fire April 3, 1962, at the Van Tassel Warehouse in Norwich killed four firefighters and destroyed two firetrucks.
Left, Robert "Red" McKeon of the Occum section of Norwich, the retired fire chief of the Occum Fire Department, stands near the department's Engine 41 Thursday as he recalls his role in the Van Tassel fire in Norwich 50 years ago. McKeon is still an active member of the department. Below, The explosions caused by a chemical fire April 3, 1962, at the Van Tassel Warehouse in Norwich killed four firefighters and destroyed two firetrucks. Left, Tim Martin The Day Buy Photo

Norwich - Whenever Thomas LaFreniere hears a fire siren, he returns to April 3, 1962.

With the fire chief out of town and the deputy responding to another call, LaFreniere, a lieutenant, was in charge at 1:22 p.m. when trucks were backing into the cramped Chestnut Street station.

"Truck fire at Van Tassel Warehouse," came the call from the switchboard operator. "Be careful, explosives aboard."

When firefighters arrived, they were met by a massive explosion that was felt as far away as Montville and Preston. Four firefighters were killed in what is the second worst fire tragedy in the state's history.

LaFreniere, now 83, will return to Norwich from Florida April 3 for a memorial ceremony on the 50th anniversary of the worst firefighter fatality disaster in the city's history. He will give the keynote speech in honor of his four fellow firefighters killed that day. A plaque will be unveiled with the names of all 10 Norwich firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

That fateful day

Three firetrucks screamed to the narrow dead end of Forest Street.

"You always think a truck fire is in the engine compartment," LaFreniere said this week. "Wrong. It was in the box car."

Firefighters saw smoke coming out of the truck cargo box, which was loaded with highly explosive peroxide-based chemicals. The truck was parked in a narrow opening between two buildings. One barrel aboard had leaked.

LaFreniere instructed firefighters to set up behind a 4-foot concrete wall, knowing the contents were explosive. He told them to aim their hoses at an angle and yelled for the water to be turned on.

A massive explosion and fireball erupted immediately, engulfing four firemen and two firetrucks. Several other firefighters and Van Tassel employees were injured. The blast destroyed the warehouse, shook the city, shattered windows and cracked walls in the surrounding area.

The warehouse was full of charcoal and chemicals, and the resulting fire burned into the night, sending even more firefighters and police officers to the hospital with exhaustion and exposure injuries. The building smoldered for days.

Killed instantly were Capt. William Sheridan and firefighters Carl Burke, Leonard Counihan and Edward Romano. Family members and descendents are expected to attend the April 3 memorial event, along with surviving firefighters and former city officials who can't forget that day.

"I was laid up in the hospital I don't remember how long," LaFreniere said. "We don't realize how hurt we are until we get into the hospital because we're groggy. Of course the guys who died around me, I could touch. To the grace of God I survived."

A newspaper photo taken that day shows a dazed LaFreniere, covered in soot, burn marks on his face and hands, his helmet gone. He is heading back into the fray. Police Sgt. John Sisco is poised to pull him back. A second photo shows other firefighters leading LaFreniere from the scene.

LaFreniere said his eyes, face, hands and ears were badly burned and his back was injured in the explosion.

The magnitude of the loss hit him in the hospital. He credited persistent counseling from fire Chaplain Francis O'Keefe with his recovery.

"He came up to me and helped me through it," LaFreniere said. "I needed some help mentally. It still stays in your mind."

But the Korean War combat veteran who had experienced shelling and heavy fighting couldn't go back to work.

"I couldn't take the alarm any longer," he said. "It brought back memories. That's what got to me anyway. Luckily I had the priest. … I was in combat in Korea. I know what explosions were, but this was so devastating, you can't imagine."

LaFreniere's parents knew their son's pain. The owners of the well known Bid's Tavern in Greeneville offered a solution.

"My father said, 'Son, you take this business over,'" LaFreniere said. "So I took it over. It was completely different than what I did before."

'I'll never forget'

Occum volunteer firefighter Robert "Red" McKeon heard the blast before his department and many others in the region had received the mutual aid call to head to Van Tassel.

It was "a mess," McKeon said, and the career firefighters from Norwich were in shock over the blast that had killed their comrades. When it was safe to get closer, McKeon jumped forward to help remove the dead and rescue the wounded.

"I had to carry out Capt. Sheridan," said McKeon, now 83. "That's something I'll never forget. To this day, when I hear of a firefighter killed in the line of duty, that comes back. It was a disaster in itself. There wasn't much left of the property. The bodies were badly burnt and bruised."

He said he plans to attend the April 3 memorial.

Reporters who cover disasters often are a step removed from the unfolding tragedies. Not so in a small city like Norwich. Then Hartford Times reporter Dennis Riley, who took one of the photos of LaFreniere that day, said he knew all four of the firefighters that were killed. Sheridan and Romano were his good friends.

Riley was at his newspaper's lower Broadway office teletyping a story to the Hartford main office when he heard - and felt - the blast. He called the fire department and then rushed to the scene. He stayed on the job through the night and worked long hours in the following days covering the aftermath.

New London Day reporter Loretta Leone also raced to the scene, Riley wrote in one of his stories. People were talking about the firefighters who were killed. She heard the name, Leonard Counihan - her uncle by marriage.

Leone continued working, covering the action, interviewing surviving firefighters, police officers and witnesses throughout the day. She listed the dead, noting that Counihan was "survived by his wife and two children."

Laws, procedures changed

Even before the flames withered, city and state officials and reporters alike had to turn their attention to what Riley called the "mundane aspects" of the aftermath.

The City Council held emergency meetings that night and for the next two nights. Not only did they have to respond to the deaths of the firefighters, but also to the sudden destruction of two firetrucks and other equipment that had to be replaced immediately. They also had to account for payments to the families of the dead and injured firefighters.

Stanley Israelite, a city councilman at the time, said all those details are muddled now. But not the main points.

"I don't remember much about that," Israelite, 86, said. "It was a bad time for the city. I remember the funerals and the faces of the widows."

Fire Chief William Confrey told the council that friction in the truck cargo hold as the truck was being unloaded likely caused the fire. Gov. John Dempsey toured the damage and ordered a full report from the state fire marshal's office. That report concluded that volatile gases escaping from the leaking container ignited and sparked the explosion and blaze.

The truck was marked "dangerous," but the containers contained no such warnings. It was legal at the time for chemicals to be transported and unloaded in that manner, even to storage facilities in populated areas. That changed after the Van Tassel fire, with new laws requiring the now-familiar placards identifying the contents of trucks and containers, and prohibiting the storage of hazardous chemicals in populous areas.

Today's Norwich firefighters and Chief Kenneth Scandariato take some solace in knowing that their predecessors' deaths at least helped save lives in the future.

Scandariato said firefighters today don't realize how much the Van Tassel fire and other tragedies touch their everyday lives. The fire not only changed chemical transportation but emergency response training as well. There were no such terms as "blast zones" and "toxic pooling releases" that are now routine parts of that training.

"Unfortunately, the fire service history is rife with situations like this," Scandariato said. "When you're caught in a situation, everything is new. But as a fire service, we make sure it doesn't happen again, with aggressive procedures. Practically everything the fire service does today is the result of someone getting killed and making sure it doesn't happen again."

c.bessette@theday.com

IF YOU GO

What: Norwich Fire Department and Local 892 of the International Association of Fire Fighters will hold a memorial service of the 50th anniversary of the fatal Van Tassel Warehouse fire

When: April 3 at 3 p.m.

Where: Central fire station, 10 North Thames St., Norwich.

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