Norwich — Hundreds gathered at fire department headquarters Tuesday to commemorate the loss of four firefighters 50 years ago to the day at the Van Tassel Warehouse explosion and fire.
Survivors, retired and current firefighters, relatives of the dead and community members from around the area met to reflect during a somber ceremony that concluded with the dedication of a plaque naming the 10 Norwich firefighters that have been killed in the line of duty, including the four on April 3, 1962, in one of the worst fire tragedies in the state's history.
Killed instantly in the fire were Capt. William J. Sheridan and firefighters Carl J. Burke, Leonard M. Counihan and Edward Romano. Many other firefighters and Van Tassel employees were injured.
"It was a terrible day," said Dennis Riley, a retired journalist who covered the tragedy for the Hartford Times. "I think about those men whenever I drive by the old fire station (on Chester Street)."
Current fire department headquarters, on the corner of North Thames and Forest streets, is just down the road from where the Van Tassel warehouse once stood.
"We gather here today to pay respect to these men and their families," Norwich Fire Chief Ken Scandariato told the gathering. "Loss comes with the job, but it doesn't make it any easier to take when it happens."
Retired Norwich Capt. Tom LaFreniere returned to Norwich Tuesday from Florida to speak during the ceremony and remember that day.
Also in attendance was Thomas DeMauro, 85, who worked more than 37 years in the department and spent seven months out of work recovering from injuries he sustained in the blast.
LaFreniere said that "with such a tremendous amount of loss of life, you would think nothing good could come of it." But, he said, the tragedy brought national attention to unmarked hazardous material, which caused the explosion, and eventually led to regulation and safety improvements.
LaFreniere, now 83, was in charge of the department that fateful day. Every time he hears fire sirens, he said, he remembers the tragedy.
That day, firefighters responded to the Van Tassel Warehouse around 1:22 p.m. and saw smoke coming from a 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, engulfing four firefighters 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.
Fifty years later, Tuesday was a "day we are reminded of the sacrifices made by our firefighters" and "those families of those firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice," Capt. Scott Merchant, the president of the department's union, told the gathering.
The crowd later convened outside the department for the memorial dedication, which includes a large bell and a plaque with the names of the 10 Norwich firefighters killed in the line of duty over the last 80 years.
While blessing the monument, the Rev. Hugh James asked for remembrance of those men as well as Norwich firefighter Benjamin De Mond, who was killed in a motor vehicle crash last month.
A Norwich firefighter rang the bell eight times to commemorate the loss, as the group observed a moment of silence and the New London Firefighters Pipes and Drums broke into a rendition of "Amazing Grace."
Afterwards, firefighters, hats in hand, paid their respects at the memorial.
"Dedicated to our fallen brother who made the ultimate sacrifice serving the city of Norwich," the plaque reads.
Community members, too, paid tribute. Tony Orsini remembered working at Norwich Hospital the day of the blast. Later, he learned of Counihan's death. Orsini had played sports with Counihan's son.
Norwich Police Chief Louis J. Fusaro, then a sophomore at Norwich Free Academy, said he was sitting in history class when the windows rattled.
"It was a scary thing," Fusaro said. "When anybody dies, it's difficult, but when it's in service to the community, it's more devastating. It's a nice thing they did here today. It's easy to forget, but it's important to remember."
|Ten Norwich firefighters have died in the line of duty. They are:
||Date of death
|Firefighter Patrick J. Brennan
||Oct. 13, 1930
|Firefighter Adam Ensling
||Feb. 11, 1942
|Firefighter Daniel M. Falvey
||May 5, 1945
|Chief Joseph Tracy
||Sept. 9, 1951
|Firefighter Frank Wasik
||Feb. 15, 1952
|Firefighter Leonard Counihan
||April 3, 1962
|Firefighter Edward Romano
||April 3, 1962
|Firefighter Carl Burke
||April 3, 1962
|Captain William Sheridan
||April 3, 1962
|Chief Charles Matthews
||Nov. 16, 1967