Published March 11. 2013 4:00AM Updated March 11. 2013 4:12PM
Norwich - On the night of March 6, 1963, wet and frozen, 4-year-old Thomas Moody Jr. looked out from his precarious perch in a tree at the raging floodwaters below.
"I remember thinking, 'Wow! This is cool," recalled the now 54-year-old Moody last week.
Then Tommy's world view suddenly changed. He looked up at his 2-year-old brother, Jimmy, who had been hoisted into the same tree by neighbor Tony Orsini.
"He was screaming and it occurred to me in an instant: The whole 'this is cool' turned into 'Wow! This is serious and I need to take this very seriously," he said.
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the night six people, including Tommy's and Jimmy's mother, Margaret "Honey" Moody, died when the Spaulding Pond Dam in Mohegan Park burst and sent a wall of water into downtown Norwich. The water followed its historic flow pattern, crashing through developed streets that bore the names echoing their origin - Lake Street, Pond Street, Spaulding Street and Brook Street.
The wall of water careened down a steep slope above the Turner-Stanton Mill at the corner of Broad Street and Boswell Avenue, and slammed into the east wing of the mill, where eight workers were finishing their second shift.
Screams could be heard blocks away. Firefighters raced to the scene as the building collapsed, trapping several victims. Four died in the mill that night, and one more died of her injuries a few hours later at The William W. Backus Hospital.
The flood altered the look of downtown Norwich for years to come and changed families permanently.
The Moody family never fully recovered, Thomas Jr. said. His father became bitter and angry at his wife's death and what he felt was an inadequate settlement with the city years later, his son said.
In 2006, Thomas Moody Sr. and his friend, Dan Kelly, led an effort to get the city to finally erect a permanent monument to the six victims - Madlyn Atterbury, Anna Barrett, Margaret "Honey" Moody, Alexander Pobol, Mae Robidou and Helen Roode. Members of the Moody family gathered at the ceremony to unveil the monument. Thomas Moody Sr. died three years later, in 2009.
That's when Thomas Jr. decided to write a book chronicling the story of the flood, the faulty earthen dam destined to fail after two days of heavy, soaking rain, and the years of political and legal battles that followed.
When the book, "A Swift and Deadly Maelstrom: The Great Norwich Flood of 1963. A Survivor's Story" was completed in January, Dianne Brown of the Norwich Historical Society invited Moody to mark the publication and the 50th anniversary with a lecture and book-signing event Wednesday.
Moody, of Stephenville, Texas, a nuclear power plant supervisor, used third-person narrative in the book, even to describe events involving his own family.
The book contains several maps of the water flow through downtown, including one showing the path the Moody car took, where it was struck by the water and the tree where the children watched events unfold.
Moody's own memories of that tragic day are "fragmented," he said last week.
"The first thing I remember is being in the car, and we were driving down Lake Street, and we got to the bottom of Lake Street and my mother yelled out 'RON!' very loudly," Moody said, explaining that Ron was his father's middle name and what his mother called him.
"Next, we were rolling over in the car and I remember being instantly frozen by the water. My eyes were wide open under water and it was black with debris all over."
Then he remembered being in the tree looking at his brother.
"My next memory was waking up at Backus Hospital," he said.
There was a row of cribs set up for children injured or displaced by the flood. Moody remembered the nurses and playing in a playroom with his brother, Jimmy. Their younger brother, Shawn, was just 6 months old and had contracted pneumonia. The infant stayed in the hospital for three weeks.
"I don't remember being told my mother was dead," Moody said. "But I have a stark memory of my mother being gone. I remember the stark memories being kept from us, so the details of me finding out what happened and this book became revelatory as I started to try to find out details from my father. My father was one of those who felt 'the details don't matter. Your mother is gone, so just deal with that.'"
But Thomas Jr. was the opposite. He wanted to know the path of the water, the route the car took and where the car finally came to rest. He wanted to know where his mother's body was found.
He learned all that in recent years. He walked those very paths with Orsini and learned how events unfolded.
Margaret Moody's brother, Jeremiah Shea - Uncle Jerry to the young children - found her body the next day. Years later, he brought Thomas Jr. to the site, "and showed me exactly where," Moody said.
"If you follow the floodwater flow and do a little detective work, you can follow where the water went and where the car went and where she was," he said.
As Orsini and Moody Sr. described events in a story for The Day in 2006, the Moody family was home at 55 Lake St. that evening watching TV when someone banged on the door and shouted, "The dam burst! Evacuate! Evacuate!"
The Moodys gathered the children and Orsini yelled down from upstairs offering to help.
Thomas Sr. drove. His wife held the infant. Orsini clutched Tommy and Jimmy in the back seat. The water was ankle deep when they left, heading downhill toward the curve to Boswell Avenue. A wave of churning water, ice and debris from the playground to the left slammed into the car, rolling it over several times and carrying it to the bottom of Pond Street. The driver's door flew open, allowing the family to escape.
Thomas Sr. and Orsini hoisted the children to a nearby warehouse roof. Orsini tucked the baby in his coat and then placed the older children in the tree.
Thomas reached down for his wife, and felt her hand slip from his frozen, muddy hand. He wanted to climb down after her, but Orsini stopped him, focusing his attentions on the babies.
An hour later, the Longo family, owners of the nearby Longo Funeral Home, helped the frozen Moodys and Orsini down. The boys and Orsini were rushed to Backus Hospital, and they put Thomas Moody in a hot bath.
"A Swift and Deadly Maelstrom" tells other stories of families caught in the flood, the screams from the Turner-Stanton Mill and the aftermath in the days, weeks and years that followed for the city of Norwich.
Moody called it "very satisfying" to put the stories on paper, including photos of the victims, descriptions of the lawsuit, trial and settlement that followed.
In 2006, he recalled standing at the memorial service expecting a simple ceremony with a brief reunion. He regretted he wasn't able to bring his wife and two children to the ceremony, which he said "turned into something very, very big and very, very seminal."
His family will make the trip this time, and he hopes to bring them to see the memorial in Mohegan Park.