Fury Unleashed

DeathFamilyWeather ReportsFarmington (Hartford, Connecticut)NaugatuckDisasters and Accidents

On the morning of Aug. 18, 1955, Waterbury wakes up to pouring rain, but hardly anyone notices.

What has their attention on this soggy Thursday morning is the "Today Show," hosted by Dave Garroway, which is being aired live from the Elton Hotel downtown.

Waterbury-born movie star Rosalind Russell has come home for the world premiere of her new movie "The Girl Rush," and her return is being treated as a grand occasion.

Throughout the day there are events honoring Russell, all of which lead up to the showing of her new film at what has been renamed The Rosalind Russell State Theater.

Despite the rain, an estimated 10,000 residents line the streets to get a glimpse of the glamorous Russell and her co-star, Gloria DeHaven. As the stars exit their limousines, powerful Hollywood searchlights shine into the low-hanging night sky.

It is truly a magical evening.

Shortly after midnight, however, Waterbury goes from bursting with pride to simply bursting.

At 12:30 a.m., police start getting calls about minor flooding.

At 1:30 a.m., a street foreman reports that storm-sewer manhole covers are popping all over town.

At 2 a.m., the Naugatuck River goes over its banks upstream in the Waterville section of the city, and a little while later police report that water is covering the road and rising fast near the intersection of Bank and North Riverside streets.

At 2:45 a.m., patrol officers are frantically banging on doors in the North Riverside Street area and advising people to evacuate.

The current running in the streets is not strong at first, but as the water comes up it steadily accelerates. The floating debris quickly goes from being a nuisance to being a danger.

Then, all hell breaks loose.

In a flash, the depth and ferocity of the water increase dramatically.

People in the clustered tenements along the river side of the street who did not get out at first warning are now trapped, and there are a lot of them.

The floodwaters chase many from the first floor, to the second floor, to the third and then the roof. At its height, the narrowly channeled maelstrom will be estimated to have reached 35 feet in places, and to be moving at 50 mph.

The first official death is a 2-year-old girl, Donna Arroyo, who drops into the caldron along with two firefighters when the ladder they are using as a bridge gives way.

Witnesses gasp in horror. It will not be the last time.

The current begins moving large apartment houses off their foundations and drawing them out into the teeth of the turbulence, where they are either consumed or dashed to pieces.

Those on dry land can only look on helplessly as neighbors beg for help that has no way of coming.

"Pray for me my friends, I'm going to die," 79-year-old Agatha Sardinskas cries out as her home is swept away. The next time she is seen is at her services.

There is no greater testament to the raging water's cold indifference than when it takes the home of Marjorie, 27, and John Bergin, 29, killing them and their three children: 5, 3 and 1.

Similar scenes play out across Connecticut.

As high as the death toll is, it would be worse were it not for the bravery of police officers, firefighters and ordinary people behaving with extraordinary courage. Hundreds are rescued and led to safety through their efforts.

In many instances, the heroism involves venturing out again and again into the deadly rapids in inadequate boats, or securing rope lifelines, or extending makeshift bridges between rooftops.

In one instance, an eight-unit tenement is turned around by the force of the water with scores of people still inside. Men with axes chop holes in the house to rescue those trapped, including several children, before it washes away.

At one point, four police officers in a boat are caught in the current and end up crashing through a large plate glass window at a lumber company.

In another, 10 members of a Connecticut National Guard unit find themselves clinging to the canvas top of their submerged truck and fighting aggressive river rats for the real estate.

One police officer, a volunteer from New Haven, is washed up on shore unconscious after having been tossed into the current. As he comes to, he finds a priest leaning over giving him the last rites. Not so fast, he tells him.

Friday Of Horror

These early-morning hours of Aug. 19 are hours of terror.

Hurricane Diane has assumed control, and if you live on a street, or a road or in a neighborhood with the word river in the name, chances are you are now in peril.

In such places the water has become a malevolent force, a raging, muddy-brown, debris-choked torrent that scrapes the landscape bare as it rampages, and extends not even the tiniest of mercies to those swept into its fury.

In the face of this onslaught, holding one's ground is not an option. Nor is surrender; prisoners are not being taken. There is only one choice: get out of the way.

If, that is, you can.

If, that is, it's not already too late.

A Hero's Story (Part I)

In Farmington, Ed Durant and Al Leone are among the volunteer firefighters summoned by the emergency siren's wailing at 3:30 a.m.

At the firehouse, Durant teams up with a couple of other volunteers, and they make their way toward the River Glen section of Unionville, a low-lying neighborhood along the Farmington River just off of Route 4.

As they approach River Glen, a boy holding a boat asks if someone can help him reach a stranded family. Durant volunteers, and he and the boy set out into the waist-deep water for the Bartolomeo house to rescue Mrs. Bartolomeo and her four children: Ann, 15; Joseph, 14; Robert, 10; and Yolanda, 5.

It is pitch black and pouring, and the water is getting deeper as they go.

At the Bartolomeo home, they find the five family members and their pet beagle, Tiny, gathered on the front porch.

After some coaxing, they get the family into the boat and start dragging it back toward higher ground. About 90 yards from safety, their luck runs out. A surge of water caused by the release of water from the Otis Dam upstream comes along and the current becomes too strong to negotiate.

Durant and the boy (no one ever did get his name) climb atop a partially submerged truck and hold tight to the boat in which the Bartolomeos sit shivering.

"It was about 4 in the morning and so dark," Ann Bartolomeo would later recount. "I don't know how long we were there. I remember the awful sound of the river and all that [neighbors'] screaming."

Suddenly, the sound of a motor draws near and up pulls Leone, a former pupil of Durant's, in a boat. When he stops, the motor dies, so Leone climbs onto the submerged truck and lets the boat drift away.

It quickly becomes apparent that they have few options. The boy decides to drift downriver and try to get out. Later, it is learned he was successful.

The river keeps running stronger and stronger, and debris is becoming a problem. An aluminum garage just misses the group. Leone and Durant decide everyone's best chance is to go into the water and drift together toward a nearby house.

Everyone makes it to the house, even the dog, and they get up on the roof. It is still pouring, and the current is continuing to become more powerful. Still, the group is beginning to feel a little better about their situation. It doesn't last long.

Satan's Realm

The record rains are causing flooding all across Connecticut, but towns along the Farmington and Naugatuck rivers are receiving the most punishment. In relatively compact stretches along these two watercourses, 71 of the 87 people who will die in this flood will be killed.

The sparsely settled town of New Hartford on the Farmington River loses eight to the water, including Jimmy Krohner.

In August of 1955, the Krohner family - the father; the mother, Randi; and their three boys, Ken, 12; Tom, 10; and Jimmy, 9 months - are living in a farmhouse on Route 44 near Satan's Kingdom, where the Farmington River runs hard through a narrow gorge.

On Thursday evening, Mr. Krohner leaves for work in Hartford. During the early-morning hours the water comes up fast, forcing the family to flee to the attic. Just before dawn, the current lifts the house, spins it around, and sends it into the gorge where it breaks apart.

Randi has baby Jimmy tied to her body with a blanket, but the waves are so huge and the water so furious, that he is torn from her bosom and disappears.

She and the other two boys manage to climb into trees, where they remain until being rescued the following day.

The Valley of Death

Downstream from Waterbury, small cities and towns along the Naugatuck River are also hit hard by the surging floodwaters: Four are dead in Naugatuck, two each in Seymour and Ansonia.

In some instances, the scenes are almost surreal, as houses, vehicles and huge fuel storage tanks float by, having been ripped from their foundations.

In Seymour, the water undermines a cemetery, and some 50 caskets are seen bobbing along in the debris.

Conditions in the Naugatuck Valley upstream are no better. In Torrington, where a case can be made that the flooding originated, given the record 14.25 inches of rain that will be recorded, the town is cut in two and six are dead.

In Winsted, where seven have died, it is not the Naugatuck, but the aptly named Mad River, that bears responsibility.

The Lost Neighborhood

Back in the River Glen section of Unionville, where Ed Durant, Al Leone and the Bartolomeo family are marooned on a rooftop, the river has continued to rise, and to rage, and to kill.

The Bechard family - mother, father and three children - are being ferried from their home along with two neighbors when the boat tips over. Patricia Ann Bechard, 7, and one of the neighbors, Homer Valliere, 45, drown.

It is a scenario that is repeated over and over: Men of courage in under-powered boats set off into harm's way to rescue those who are stranded, only to find their boats and their brave hearts are not the equal of their adversary.

The Frey family - Robert, 57, Mildred, 55, and daughter Millie, 16 - are in a boat and being rescued by Farmington police Officer Charles Yodkins and University of Connecticut student Joseph Morin, when it turns over. None survives.

Bill Davis, another Farmington police officer, is living on the first floor of a River Glen house with his wife, Frieda, and their three children, Glen, 7, James, 5, and Lawrence, 4. On the second floor live two tenants, Eldridge Chadwick, 53, and his wife, Sarah, 52.

After being warned to leave, the Davis family is packing a few belongings when the water comes into the first floor. They flee to the second floor, and then the attic, where Davis punches a hole in the roof and climbs out.

He is beginning to help the others out when a wall of water comes down the river and causes the house next to theirs to slam into them. Their house breaks apart, and everyone is thrown into the river, where they become separated.

Davis and his wife are eventually able to grab trees miles apart from each other. There they cling for seven hours before being rescued, not knowing what has happened to their children or each other. Of the seven people living in what was once their house, they are the only survivors.

A Hero's Story (Part II)

There is, of course, no way the house beneath the rooftop holding Leone, Durant and the Bartolomeo family is going to be able to survive the force of nature that is erasing River Glen from the map.

At this point, shortly after daybreak, water of varying depths and swiftness covers most of the flatlands along Route 4 from Unionville to Farmington village.

Leone and Durant both know it is only a matter of time before their perch is separated from its foundation. When the inevitable happens, they drift helplessly downriver for a while, before the house becomes caught between two trees.

There, they salvage some clothesline and use it to tie the four children to a limb in one of the trees. Then they wait to see what their next move will be. While they are sitting there, they hear part of a nearby railroad trestle crash into the river.

Finally, a helicopter arrives and drops a rescue line. Mrs. Bartolomeo, a large woman, is ferried over to shore first, followed by the two older children. The plan is to have Durant and Yolanda go together in the sling, followed by Leone with the remaining child, Joseph.

Durant, Leone and Yolanda are standing on the rooftop when a house comes along and bumps their house. This sends the three of them, along with the dog, Tiny, out into the current. Joseph, who is still sitting in the tree, is left behind.

As they are going downriver at a rapidly increasing speed, the house breaks up and they are left with a corner of the roof. When they approach a railroad trestle, the water is so high (an estimated 35 to 40 feet) they have to lie down flat to make it underneath.

Their makeshift raft is bobbing up and down like a ship in a storm and being hit by debris from all sides. Leone and Durant take off their clothes so they won't become snagged on anything if they end up in the water.

Durant tries to pull them into a tree as they pass under one, and is separated from the makeshift raft. Leone, Yolanda and Tiny are now alone on the rooftop. Durant is somewhere behind them sitting on a limb, stark naked.

The rooftop carrying Leone and Yolanda continues along and then, fortunately, becomes caught up in yet another tree. Leone puts Yolanda and Tiny onto some branches and grabs passing debris to make a platform on which they can sit.

The river is running stronger and stronger, and Leone has no way of knowing if this is the peak or if it is going to get worse. He finally reaches a conclusion, one he doesn't really want to reach. Yolanda's best bet is for him to go into the water and try to swim for help.

Leone tells Yolanda what he is going to do and she begins crying. He comforts her, promising he will be right back. He says a prayer, the prayer Catholics say if they think they may be about to die. Then he jumps into the water.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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