The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
A flood of memories seems like yesterday
Last week's torrential rains were a soggy reminder that this is the 55th anniversary of what was probably the most devastating flood in Darien's history.
It all began innocently enough with a couple of days of intermittent rain that people shrugged off as merely a stretch of lousy weather. Then Thursday, Oct. 13, 1955, dawned in an incessant downpour that continued to drench the town for a couple of days, turning harmless little streams into raging rivers that spilled over their banks with destructive force.
Before it finally let up that Saturday night, Oct. 15, two people drowned, a freight train was derailed, dozens of homes were evacuated as flood waters rose to first floor levels, bridges were washed out, there were countless heroic rescues and scores of stranded travelers took refuge in emergency shelters at firehouses and school buildings.
More than 14 inches of rain, exceeding the combined total of the previous nine months, had fallen on most of Connecticut in those three days. Uprooted trees and debris from toppled buildings clogged culverts and bridge, effectively converting them into dams that impeded the flow of storm water to the sea and caused back-ups that resulted in widespread flooding.
There was grim irony in the Darien experience. Just two months earlier, flood waters ripped through Connecticut towns on the Housatonic, Farmington and Naugatuck rivers. People drowned. Buildings were swept away. Communications and transportation were cut off. Darien and other downstate towns sent volunteers, food and supplies to the stricken towns. Two months later, Darien and its neighbors were in need of some of that help themselves.
Several sections of the Post Road were under water. As usual, a veritable lake formed in the dip under the railroad bridge in the center of town, the scene of one of many rescues that weekend. A man had a heart attack when his car stalled there and Police Officer Walt Ponichtera (later a lieutenant) waded in to get him and carried him out to George Brencher's gas station where an ambulance waited. The man survived. All during the night, Fireman Ed Tiano helped other people to safety when their cars stalled there.
Later that evening, a freight train headed for Boston crossed over the Noroton River at the Stamford line minutes before the surging water undermined the roadbed and left the tracks handing in air. Less than a mile later, fate was not so providential. Tiny Stony Brook, swollen to many times its normal flow, had washed the footings out from under the tracks behind the Ring's End lumberyard. The engine and a few cars passed before the tracks gave way, sending about 20 cars careening over on their sides and strewing their cargo -- canned foods, lumber and thousands of gallons of paint -- over a wide area.
The National Guard patrolled the train wreck area for two days and two nights until the mess was cleaned up. But it was months before twisted rails, topped catenaries and downed power lines were replaced and service was restored to normal.
It could have been worse. A brakeman on the ill-fated freight said that night that he had a `hunch" that a Boston to New York passenger train was due and put out red warning flares. About 20 minutes later, that train chugged to a half just yards from the wreck. Passengers took refuge in the shelters and completed their trip by bus the next day.
Nobody was hurt in the train wreck, but tragedy was not averted elsewhere. Mr. and Mrs. Greaney, a middle-aged couple from Glenbrook, were en route home from a wedding in Norwalk and took the Old Kings Highway North route, apparently to avoid Post Road flooding.
By this time, Goodwives River, normally a mild trickle, had become a torrent and their car stalled in rapidly rising flood water near the entrance to the shopping center, prompting them to get out and try to walk to higher ground. The swift current apparently swept them away. Darien Fireman Fred Voelker found their bodies downstream two days later.
Nor was that Darien's only tragedy. A young Darien father, Charles Leininger, was hurled to his death by the Rippowam River in New Canaan in similar circumstances.
Tales of selfless bravery were almost too numerous to document. Police Officer Cliff DeForest, for example, was knocked into the surging current of a swollen stream as he rushed to answer calls for help. Luckily, Fireman George Gaffney was nearby and, with a tethered rope tied to his waist, waded into the cold water to help DeForest.
Sal Mazzeo Sr. of the Red Cross and Dick Borneman, a tall lanky cop, were out in a rowboat and taking people from their homes to shelters. When they reached Stony Brook, debris prevented them from rowing and Mazzeo got out of the boat to tow it by hand through chest-deep water. When the boat capsized, police officers Bill Richards and Bill Myles went to their aid and all were brought to safety. Mazzeo and Borneman required hospital treatment.
According to another story heard at the Darien firehouse shelter that night, three people had been clinging to brush on the banks of Stony Brook, calling for help in the swirling water. A nearby resident heard them and called police. Sgt. Rene Buchs and Officer Joe Turturino responded and pulled them to safety.
The night's most macabre scene was at St. John's Cemetery off Camp Avenue where surging flood waters actually uprooted a couple of coffins.
Not all of the night's heroics were attributed to police and fire personnel. Attorney George Lowman and Postmaster Fran Whelan, Red Cross leaders, marshaled volunteers who worked around the clock for two days, arranging food, cots, blankets and dry clothes for people in the emergency shelters.
Finally, when the area began to dry out a couple of days later, there was a much needed touch of comic relief that was as welcome as the sun.
Sam Oliver, a Darien resident and a state food and beverage inspector, had condemned liquor supplies at several restaurants, bars and package stores that had been flooded. A truckload of "bad booze" was hauled to the town dump and news photos showed Oliver smashing bottles like a latter-day Eliot Ness, scourge of Prohibition Era rum-runners.
Ed Chrostowski was editor of the Darien Review during the '50s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.