They answered the call
The fatal crash that sparked an inferno and paralyzed traffic on the Gold Star Memorial Bridge Friday is just the sort of disaster that emergency workers prepare for – and hope never happens.
When a car's blown tire led to a tanker truck overturning on the southbound span of the bridge at 11:15 a.m., fire and police sprung into action. Their quick response is a tribute to emergency planning and likely saved lives.
Sadly, tanker driver Wallace “Wally” Joseph Fauquet, 42, of Gales Ferry lost his life after his tanker truck struck the car and overturned, igniting the 2,200 gallons of home heating oil that was its cargo.
Off-duty New London Police Officer Cornelius “Neil” Rodgers, with help from two Good Samaritans, rushed to the aid of the driver and passenger trapped in their car just a few feet from the tanker blaze. Together they were able to pull the trapped driver, 58-year-old Reginald Collins of New London, and passenger Chantel Butler, 35, of Groton, out of the car and to safety.
The rescue of Collins and Butler was only the beginning of a complex and daylong multi-agency response that involved everyone from Nate Kannas, the Groton town dispatcher who took the initial call, to Gov. Ned Lamont, who arrived for an afternoon press conference.
The tasks ahead were numerous. As the fire raged, both spans of the Gold Star Bridge had to be shut down, effectively halting traffic on one of the busiest transportation corridors in the Northeast. Together, the two spans carry approximately 123,000 vehicles a day.
Drivers on I-95 found themselves snarled in traffic in search of alternate routes over the Thames River, and even Amtrak trains that cross their own span were delayed for a time.
Firefighters had to extinguish the blaze on the bridge, which sent black smoke billowing into the sky, as well as the flames that spilled off the bridge to the ground below, threatening buildings and propane tanks.
By 3 p.m., when Governor Lamont and other officials held a press conference on the Groton side of the river, the northbound span had reopened but no one was sure when the southbound span would. There was speculation that the fire could have compromised the steel supports beneath it, and engineers were trying to assess the damage.
Imagine the prospect of the bridge being out of commission not for hours but days, even weeks. Travelers between Boston and New York would have to find alternate routes. Ambulances in Groton would have to divert patients to Backus or Westerly hospitals rather than L+M. Employees who work and live on opposite sides of the river would have to take lengthy detours. Deliveries of mail, store inventory and heating fuel would be delayed.
By afternoon, emergency planners already were exploring the idea of making the northbound span two-way. This sounds feasible, but the fact that it is still awaiting long-term repairs complicated matters. Could the bridge accommodate double its normal traffic of about 60,000 vehicles a day?
Thankfully, such a move wasn't necessary. Officials had the southbound span reopened shortly after 6 p.m., a Herculean feat.
If there was any doubt of the importance of the Gold Star Bridge to public safety and commerce, Friday's accident dispelled it. The twin spans connect two interdependent communities. They are a vital link between Boston and New York. They provide key support to such institutions as the Groton Sub Base, Electric Boat and L+M Hospital.
For those who might doubt the importance of our first responders in a world that is sometimes hostile to their work, the quick and expert actions of firefighters, police officers and state agency workers were a sterling demonstration of how prepared these workers are to help us in our time of need.
And for anyone feeling cynical about the human race, the actions of one off-duty police officer and two Good Samaritans remind us that there are still heroes among us.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser, retired executive editor Tim Cotter and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.