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The story of the Moore family, who floated on an attic floor across Little Narragansett Bay after their house was swept away, is legend among those who recount Hurricane of '38 tales.
To Nancy Ligouri, it's more than a legend. It is her story as well.
Ligouri, then Nancy Tudisco, was a sophomore at Stonington High School who worked as a “mother's helper” for the wealthy Moore family during the summer of 1938.
The Moores' Fort Road house in Watch Hill was their summer home, standing with the bay to the front and the ocean at the back.
Ligouri had just gotten home from school when the Moores' chauffeur, Andy Pupolo, stopped by to ask if she would help as they packed up the summer house and moved back to Westerly. Ligouri agreed.
By the time they got to Fort Road, which ran from Watch Hill, out across the Napatree Point peninsula, water was washing across the road.
Soon, the hurricane took over. Water crashed against the house and through windows. There were 10 people in the house: Geoffrey and Margaret Moore, their four children, an elderly relative, Pupolo, Ligouri, and another family employee.
The family started a race against the water, sprinting for higher ground as ocean and bay gushed in and the house began to fall apart. They were on the second floor when it crashed onto the first. They climbed to the attic, which then crashed onto the second.
Through a window, Ligouri saw a neighbor's house, where a teenaged Jim Nestor, his aunt and another woman were standing on a porch, the women shouting.
”The next thing you know the house just tumbled over,” Ligouri said in an interview from her Stratford home last week. “Within just a few seconds or minutes, Jim was beside us and all he had on was his shorts. And he said, 'I don't know how I got here. They're gone. They're gone.' “
Ligouri said she doesn't remember seeing a tidal wave, as many other witnesses reported seeing. But she knows exactly when it came.
”The ocean and the bay came together and just clapped everything in its path,” she said. “When that happened, the roof flew off the house, the sides fell down and the floor became like a raft.”
The 11 people hit the floor, then grabbed hold of anything they could find. Luckily, a canvas tent on the floor prevented it from being too slippery, Ligouri said. They floated into a bay that resembled ocean. They prayed the rosary as waves crashed over them.
”Every time a wave would come, Geoff would yell, 'Everybody hang on!' “ Ligouri said.
Ligouri doesn't know how long they floated until suddenly, everything quieted and the water only rippled. The group spotted land and paddled toward it, landing at Barn Island in Stonington.
They spent the night in the hay under the roof of a barn that had been destroyed. The next morning, Ligouri said, they found a bureau with a mirror and flashed signs to a passing fishing boat.
It was likely early afternoon by the time Ligouri got back to her house in Pawcatuck. A crowd of relatives and friends were out front.
Earlier, Ligouri's sister, Sarah, had gone looking for Nancy's body at a makeshift morgue set up in Westerly High School.
”When I got out of the car, everybody started crying,” Ligouri said.
Ligouri's mother and father were inside.
”You can't imagine the reception I got,” Ligouri said. “My poor mother and father, my heart aches for what my mother and father went through that day, believe me.”
Ligouri's father had run into a neighbor that morning who told him Fort Road had been wiped out and everyone killed.
”And my father said, 'How can that be? My daughter's with Geoff Moore's family,'” Ligouri said.
He sprinted to Watch Hill, where police prevented him from getting close enough to see anything.
Ligouri says God was with her and the other 10 people that afternoon. It's the only reason she can think of why she's still alive.
The memories fade after 70 years, she said, and she doesn't think much about the hurricane - mostly only when she sees a hurricane on television.
”That's when the memories come flooding back,” she said.