DUI driver kills 3 Sacred Heart seniors; badly injures 2
Possibly Hamden's Worst Ever Traffic Accident
Fifty years ago, Friday the thirteenth of May 1966, Hamden firefighters responded to a horrific head-on collision in the southbound lane of the Wilbur Cross Parkway, about one mile from the West Rock Tunnel.
May 14, 1966 - New Haven Register & Journal-Courier Saturday Special - Courtesy of Gil Spencer (Text condensed)
Engine 4 in 1966 was the '65 Mack
What was to have been a fun Friday night outing for five Sacred Heart Academy seniors turned into a deadly nightmare because of a drunk driver. The five girls were headed south on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in a red 1963 Chevy. Traveling in the northbound lane in her white 1965 Ford convertible was a woman who, according to published news accounts, had just left a Whalley Avenue restaurant with a blood alcohol level of 0.18%.
Nearing the Wintergreen Avenue overpass, the northbound '65 Ford ragtop crossed the median divider at a high rate of speed, slamming head-on into the red '63 Chevy. Three girls in the Chevy were killed instantly and two others were severely injured.
Parkway traffic jam requires NHFD mutual aid
Hamden's Engine 4 and Rescue 2 responded out of Headquarters (Station 4). The accident had halted all southbound parkway traffic, which slowed Engine 4's response considerably. Hamden requested an engine from New Haven, which promptly dispatched Engine 15 out of the Fountain Street station.
The driver of Rescue 2, which was basically a small International-Harvester panel truck, drove along the median to get to the scene. New Haven's Engine 15 responded via the northbound parkway on-ramp just south of the tunnel, arriving on scene well before Engine 4.
Deadly crash spurs change in Connecticut's controlled access highways
Area residents had already given that stretch of the highway the dubious nickname "Death Strip." Incredibly, this accident was preceeded by seven other fatal auto accidents in that area of Route 15, all within less than three years (see article below).
Hamden Mayor John DeNicola, Sr. wired Connecticut Governor John N. Dempsey, urging the state to finally install median guard rails along the six miles of the parkway that runs through the Town of Hamden. The Governor got the funds appropriated within a few days and the guard rails were up within months. Guard rails are now on all medians of Connecticut's controlled access highways.
The two surviving girls recovered. In October 1966, the drunk driver was found guilty on three counts of "misconduct with a motor vehicle" and spent a year in jail.
Hamden's infamous Wilbur Cross Parkway car crash of Friday, May 13, 1966, which took the lives of three seventeen year-old girls and badly injured two others, remains one of the worst, if not the worst Hamden traffic accident on record.
New Haven Register, Sunday, May 15, 1966 (original text has been condensed)
Below: Hamden's Rescue 2 and New Haven's Engine 15 form the backdrop
for the only recognizable feature of the 1963 Chevy - the front bumper.
New Haven Register & Journal-Courier Saturday Special, May 14, 1966
HFRA member and retired Batt. Chief Gil Spencer vividly recalls the tragedy. "It's burned into my memory!" Gil was with Lieut. Bill Hines' crew at Headquarters. Although unsure if he was on the rescue or the engine that night, Gil recalled that the driver of Engine 4, the '65 Mack, would have been Firefighter Johnny Hoffman. The other members of Lieut. Hines' crew were Firefighters Paul Reutenauer and Milner Benham.
Tragedy gives rise to a long association with HFD
As fire and ambulance personnel were working to free the dead and injured from the wreckage, a man in a clerical collar approached the scene on foot. The man was apparently among the scores of motorists who were stranded that night in the southbound lane of the Wilbur Cross Parkway.
When he located incident commander Deputy Chief Everett Doherty, the man-of-the-cloth requested that a tarp be raised around the remains of the Chevy to prevent some of the more curious by-standers from viewing the carnage.
The man-of-the-cloth of course was Rev. Owen Sanderson of Hamden's recently organized Christ Lutheran Church. This was "the Rev's" first encounter with the Hamden Fire Department, which would eventually lead to a very long and meaningful relationship with the department and its members of all faiths that endures to this day.
Residents of the Wintergreen Avenue area, fed up with the state's inaction regarding guard rails along the parkway's "Death Strip," met the weekend following the tragedy. They wrote letters to press federal, state and local officials to use funds previously allocated for Wintergreen Avenue parkway on-off ramps to pay for the guard rails. The Wintergreen Avenue on-off ramps never happened - but the guard rails did.
The New Haven Register, Tuesday, May 17, 1966
The Barn Door Gets Locked (Finally)
After eight fatal accidents in less than three years and many pleas by Hamden residents of the Wintergren Avenue neighborhood, the state finally came though with guard rails.
New Haven Register, May 18, 1966
Parkway photo from "Route 15: The Road to Hartford" by Larry Larned (Arcadia Printing, 2002) - CLICK to enlarge
Within a week following the May 13th Hamden crash, Governor Dempsey ordered the installation of guard rails along the parkway median through the Town of Hamden. By the end of the decade, guard rails had been erected along all medians of Connecticut's controlled access highways.
The above 1950's photo, looking south from the West Rock Tunnel, shows just how vulnerable oncoming cars were to head-on collisions before median guard rails were finally erected.
Hamden High Fire in Nursery Area Extinguished Quickly
Orderly Evacuation - One Minor Injury
Friday, May 13 - The Hamden Fire Department responded to a fire alarm at Hamden High School at 7:41 this morning. While en-route, responding units received an update through Central Communications that the Hamden Police Department Resource Officer [SRO] assigned to the school reported an active fire in the first floor nursery-daycare room in the south end of the building.
The Hamden High School administration and staff had already started an orderly evacuation of all students, assisted by both HHS security and Hamden Police Officers. No students were injured.
The evacuation was taking place as the first HFD apparatus arrived on scene. The entire student body was relocated to the football stadium away from fire department activity. A teacher attempting to open a heavy window to clear smoke during the evacuation received a hand injury, but refused ambulance transport.
The HFD arrived at 7:46 and found a fire being held in check by an activated sprinkler head in the nursery. At 7:53 the fire was declared under control with limited extension. Water damage from the activated sprinkler and fire department suppression was limited only to the room of origin and the adjacent hallway.
The structure was ventilated to remove smoke and other products of combustion. HFD personnel metered the entire school to ensure the safety of the atmosphere. The school was released back to the HHS administration at 8:55 and students were allowed back to class.
[The website thanks the Fire Chief's Office and Dep. Chief Gary Merwede for providingthis articleand photo.)
Photo from The New Haven Register (We used to have the glossy)
May 15, 1973
With the retirement of Deputy Chief James Strain, three veteran department members received promotions following competitive civil service exams. Pictured here in the town hall office of Town Clerk Thomas Raccio are Deputy Chief Joe McDermott, Captain Jack Laffin and Lieutenant Walter Macdowall. To the right of Macdowall are Chief V. Paul Leddy and Mr. Raccio.
Dep. Chief McDermott replaced Strain as commander of Platoon 2. Captain Laffin replaced McDermott on Platoon 4 and Lieut. Macdowall replaced Laffin on Platoon 3.
Dep. Chief McDermott retired in September 1991 following 38 years of service. Captain Laffin was promoted again in 1984 to be shift commander of Platoon 1. He retired on January 1, 1990, having served in six different decades.
Lieut. Macdowall went on to become the department's first EMS Officer. In 1984 he was appointed the department's first modern day Assistant Chief. He retired with 26 years of service in November 1991 to accept the position of Fire Chief in LaGrange, Illinois.
Joe McDermott and Jack Laffin are currently members of the HFRA. Walt Macdowall passed away in 1995 while still serving as Chief of the LaGrange Fire Department. He was only 52.
Mike DiStefano joined the Hamden Fire Department as a firefighter/paramedic in September 1987. After twenty-one years with the department Mike retired at the rank of captain and headed south. A month later, Mike joined the Villages (Florida) Department of Public Safety as a new firefighter. Mike, who is a longstanding member of the HFRA, was promoted to lieutenant in 2010 and battalion chief four years later.
On his recent visit to Hamden, we asked Mike to provide us with some information about his new responsibilities, his department and the area it serves.
The Villages [Florida] Department of Public Safety covers 56 square miles and a population of about 120,000. There are from 28 to 30 fire personnel per shift depending upon overtime. Department apparatus consists of two 75' quints, three engines, one heavy squad engine, one fast attack minipumper, five rescues and a B/C's truck. On standby is one wildland urban interface (WUI) engine, a 14 foot boat, a light trailer, an air trailer, and a collapse tech rescue trailer.
With the Station 5 personnel and Squad 51, a 2011 Sutphen.
Staff consists of the Chief, Deputy Chief, two fire inspectors, one Emergency Management specialist, EMS Captain, Fire Training Captain, Administrative Captain, a financial specialist, one IT guy and administrative assistants. All suppression apparatus have a lieutenant in charge and all trucks are ALS, including all staff vehicles manned by fire personnel.
The department ran a little over 18,000 calls last year. When Mike recently emailed the website with info about his department he wrote, "Yesterday was busy. We ran 55 medical, 4 structure fires with fire at one, and two mutual aid structure fires."
Mike noted that his department runs with other agencies all the time, including three county fire departments, three sheriffs, two city police departments and three EMS transport services. "It can get very confusing sometimes but they are very big on ICS here, even the EMS services and Tow operators are on board with it."
B/C DiStefano and (L to R) Firefighter/Paramedic Danny McGoldrick, Lieut. Jeff Loder, Firefighter/EMT Bob Ramage, Firefighter/Paramedic Max Cantor and Firefighter/EMT Mason Guyette (All photos by Angela DiStefano)
The Villages department is on a 24/48 work schedule, Mike being the B/C of the A shift. In addition to his line duties, Mike also assists in training and is OIC for all the department's Tech rescue training and ops. The Villages department also is part of a regional Technical Rescue Team taskforce.
Website thanks to Mike and his crew of Station 5 for the photos and the overview of the Villages Department of Public Safety. Wishing you all well, and be safe!
15 Years Ago
Photo by Bob Mordecai
Here's Lieut. DiStefano with his crew test driving a fixer-upper during Hurst Tool training on February 15, 2001. Clockwise after Mike are Firefighters Jay Connolly, Scott Chasney, Julio Lopes and Kim Talmadge.
The Renegade Pigs Motorcycle Club, Gertz-Meriden Motorcycle Club of Connecticut, Inc. is comprised of police officers, firefighters, and any other public safety officers or employees. The club sponsors the High Hopes Home in Meriden for severely handicapped and abandoned children.
The Club also makes donations to other charities during the year, including Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys for the Home, the Meriden Fire Department and, when possible, other organizations that support their cause. The Club's only source of income is an annual Motorcycle Raffle.
This year's raffle prize - the ONLY prize - is a
Brand New 2016 Harley Davidson Street Glide!
Only 2000 tickets will be sold, at a cost of $20.00 per ticket.
The drawing for this beautiful motorcycle will take place on July 30th at 5:00 p.m. at the Meriden American Legion, Post #45, 835 Hanover Rd., Meriden, Connecticut. The lucky winner need not be present at the drawing, but is responsible for all taxes.
Contact Rich (Rambo) Maybury at 203-927-1641 for a ticket (or tickets) and/or for more information.