On April 3, 1962, the Norwich fire department lost four men in a violent and fiery explosion at the Van Tassel warehouse. Killed in the tragedy were Captain William Sheridan, Leonard Counihan, Edward Romano and Carl Burke.
An employee reported smoke coming from the trailer of a truck that was being unloaded at the dock. The truck was carrying a 20-ton load of organic peroxides from New York that may have been ignited by friction or a leak. The initial call to dispatch was at 1:22 pm and Engine 1 and 3 were sent to the scene at the dead end of Forest Street. Box 125 was received at 1:25 pm and Norwich Engines 2 and the ladder truck were dispatched, as well. Engine 1 secured a water supply and pulled past the trailer. Engine 3 arrived and stopped just short of the truck’s tractor. Five firefighters crouched behind the concrete loading-platform wall to direct a 2-½ inch hose stream into the rear of the smoldering trailer. The van exploded killing 3 of the 5 firefighters behind the wall. Another firefighter from Engine 3 was caught in the fireball and killed. The two remaining firefighters had to wait 30 minutes to be rescued due to the severity of the fire that followed. The wooden warehouse buildings, containing approximately one million pounds of bagged charcoal briquettes, were blown down and began to burn. Engine 1 and 3 were destroyed. The explosion caused damage throughout a large portion of the city and was felt as far away as Montville and Preston. The tractor-trailer was placarded appropriately, for the time, with “Dangerous” on both sides and rear.
Governor John Dempsey said, “The death of four firemen is a terrific price to pay but I hope the one result of the disaster will be better identification of carriers transporting explosives and better control over those cargoes in transit so that these tragic occurrences will cease.”
This tragedy did lead to stricter guidelines for transportation of hazardous materials for the entire country, as well as the modern placard warning system.
This story was compiled using the following copyrighted material as reference:
NFPA July Quarterly – July 1962
The Hartford Times – Dennis J. Riley
Fire Engineering – June 1962