Friday Flashback #22

In the early 1950s, Peter Barlow took this photo:


Here’s the back story. The car-carrying  truck was parked outside the Westnor Diner one evening. The Westnor was on the corner of Post Road West and Sylvan Road North — where J. Pocker and Belmondo are now. The diner’s name comes from its Westport location, near Norwalk — get it?

In those days — before I-95 — all trucks traveled on the Post Road. It was a mess. As much as we loathe the highway, it’s taken tons of traffic off our streets.

Peter — who took this photo with an amateur camera (using a flashbulb) — figures that with all the snow on the truck, the driver was inside “having a leisurely meal.”

This is a serene scene. But directly across the street, a few years earlier — on May 2, 1946 — a truck blew a tire, smashing into a drum filled with vulcanizing cement.

The resulting explosion set off a spectacular blaze. Fire chief Frank Dennert, former fire chief Francis Dunnigan, and 2 other firefighters were killed. Eight people were injured. It was one of the worst disasters in Westport history.

17 responses to “Friday Flashback #22

  1. Pamela Pollak

    Was Francis Dunnigan the husband of Mes. Dunnigan, the 6th grade teacher at Saugatuck Elementary School?

  2. Westport, Conn., May 3 (AP) — An explosion which suddenly sprayed blazing liquid on firemen and others as they fought a blaze in an accident damaged truck today left a toll of two dead and eight severely injured.
    FRANCIS P. DUNNIGAN, 53, a fireman and former chief of the Westport department, was almost instantly killed when the truck, reported by police to have contained nylon yarn and rubber cement, exploded on the Boston Post Road here last night.
    JOHN LOWELL, the truck driver, tentatively listed as from Providence, R. I., died early today in the nearby Norwalk Hospital where eight others were reported in grave condition.
    Five other Westport firemen and a 16 year old boy were reported to be “very seriously injured” at the hospital where it was said a complete check of the number injured and the extent of their injuries had not been completed.
    Chief of Police JOHN A. DOLAN, an eye witness of the accident, said that the truck, headed toward New York, blew a front tire and swerved into a tree. Almost immediately he said, the flames flashed from the gas tank, enveloping the cab. The driver struggled out and collapsed.

    Tells of Explosion.
    Before the department arrived, Chief DOLAN, said, he heard several muffled explosions from within the truck. When the department truck reached the scene the firemen approached the truck with the hose from the chemical tank just as the door blew out and the men were sprayed with a blazing liquid.
    The police chief said that spectators rushed to the aid of the firemen, helping several of them roll on the ground to extinguish their blazing garments. A call was sent for state police aid and the injured men were rushed to the hospital in state and local police cars and in private automobiles.
    Early this morning a hospital spokesman gave out what he said was “an incomplete list” of the victims. The list included the names of JOHN GALLAGHER, IRVING SAMITZ, JOHN SAVIANO, JOHN and GEORGE POWERS, DOMINICK ZEOLI, all members of the fire department, and a 16 year old boy whose last name was believed to be BAILEY.
    Chief DOLAN said that an investigation would be launched today and that State Fire Marshall EDWARD J. HICKEY would also institute a probe into the cause of the explosion.

    • The only halfway nice thing that came out of this tragedy is that on June 23,Babe Ruth visited Dominick Zeoli, George and James (not John?) Powers, and John Saviano in Norwalk Hospital. He was here to play golf at Longshore, as the guest of Dr. V.E. Caselnova. First Selectman Albert Scully asked Ruth to visit the injured men. A police escort took him to the hospital. He gave each man an autographed baseball, and talked with each. Zeoli told Fire Chief Harold Shippey he’d be back at work earlier than planned, thanks to the visit. (Info courtesy of Woody Klein’s boo on the history of Westport)

  3. Jack Whittle

    The firefighters who lost their lives were Frank L. Dennert, Francis P. Dunnigan, John H. Gallagher and Dominick Zeoli.

  4. Seth Goltzer

    I was led to believe that the truck accident was on the corner of the Post Rd and Kings Hwy N where Smittys Texaco was. Maybe someone knows.
    Ancient history.

  5. Peter, Are you the guy who could always be found out on the Sound taking pictures of boats? If so, you probably have lots of shots of my Dad and me bringing up the rear of the weekend Lightning regattas out of Cedar Point Yacht Club which, in those days, was located at Compo. If I remember correctly, you had a really classic black motor boat to cruise around in.

    • Yes, that was me. What was the number of your dad’s Lightning? I’m sending a photo of the “really classic black motor boat” to Dan.

      • Oh gee! That was so long ago I don’t remember. Please do send the photo of your boat to Dan along with a couple of lines about how you were out there practically EVERY weekend taking photos. Not only was your boat a real beauty but you were a welcome presence out there for us sailors!

        • Hey Bill, thanks for the kind words. I just sent a picture to Dan. I loved that boat but eventually needed something that would go a little further- that boat was only 17 feet long. I bought another boat in 1968 which I still use to this day, based at Masons Island, Mystic.

  6. I certainly remember that boat. “Focus” was her name I believe. I was a dock rat at Compo Basin (CPYC) age about 10 or 11 helping Jay Tormey and Alan Thorndike on weekends. Always went home with 15 or 20 bucks in my pocket. Good times!

  7. The truck didn’t hit a drum of vulcanizing cement. It was carrying drums of vulcanizing cement and when it hit the tree, the truck caught fire and it spread to the inside. When the firefighters arrived, they opened the rear door on the truck and the drum exploded sending flames out the rear and engulfing the victims. That version comes from John Saviano, Chick Powers and Bill Krause, all burn victims who related the story to me over the years. – Dick Alley

    • Peter Barlow

      And can you confirm the location of this accident? Was it at the intersection of Kingshighway and the Post Road, also known as Nash’s Corner?

  8. A couple of comments. I worked with John Saviano for many years. He was a mentor, a colleague and a friend. On many occasions when he commanded the 4-12 shift at WPD, I was his desk officer. Additionally, my bride is the niece of the late Chief Frank Dennert and she was a little girl at the time of the incident. John and I discussed this incident on more than one occasion and regarding the Babe Ruth story, John told it like this. Babe Ruth played golf fairly regularly at Birchwood Country Club (not Longshore) and John who was a teenager at the time, often caddied for him. On the day the Babe came to play golf, he inquired as to where his caddy was (John) and on learning of the accident, immediately cancelled his golf game, obtained some baseballs and headed for Norwalk hospital to visit the victims, several of whom received autographed balls. John told me that he spent a lot of time there to the extent that John’s mother fixed a big Italian meal and brought it to the hospital. Chickie Powers and Bill Krause were also burn victims and I think both received baseballs then too. It’s interesting to note that in their adult lives, both were hard-working members of Westport PAL, devoting hundreds of volunteer hours to helping Westport youngsters. Many years later, Babe Ruth’s widow was honored by the Sportsmen of Westport and John was her driver while she was in town.
    As to the location. The tree that struck was in front of what was later the Fable Funeral Home. That’s the large white building on the south side of the road located hallway between the intersection of Kings Highway North and South Sylvan Rd. intersection.