Friday Flashback #348

One of our town’s worst tragedies happened 77 years ago this month.

As Woody Klein noted in his book on the history of Westport, on May 2, 1946 a tire on a truck filled with vulcanizing cement blew on Post Road West, near Sylvan Road.

It swerved into a tree, and immediately exploded. A huge fire quickly erupted.

First on the scene was ambulance driver Arthur Audley, and his daughter Edna. They helped the trucker and others.

But the driver died the next morning at the hospital. Also killed were Fire Chief Frank Dennert, former fire chief Francis Dunnigan,  and firefighters John H. Gallagher. Dominick Zeoli died later.

Eight others were injured.

A plaque honoring the firefighters, 50 years after the tragedy.

Westporters responded quickly — including more than 2 dozen blood donors, who headed to Norwalk Hospital.

The Westporter-Herald printed an extra edition the next morning (so readers did not have to wait for the afternoon paper), and solicited contributions to the Firemen’s Fund. A benefit baseball game raised more money.

Four firefighters people seriously injured in the explosion — Zeoli, George and Jimmy Powers, and 13-year-old John Saviano — were still in the hospital on June 23 when they received a surprise visit (and autographed baseballs) from Babe Ruth. He was a frequent golfer at Birchwood Country Club, and Saviano was often his caddy.

Babe Ruth autographs a baseball for George “Nookie” Powers. His soon-to-be wife Virginia “Jinx” Closson looks on.

That moment was overshadowed by the tragedy, of course. The fire was seared into the memories of all who were in Westport that May day.

The 4 firefighters’ names are part of the state’s Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Windsor Locks.

The Connecticut Fallen Firefighters Memorial.

And more than a decade after that accident — when the Post Road was the main route for trucks traveling to and from New York — the Connecticut Turnpike opened.

The danger moved from local roads, to an interstate highway.

(Friday Flashback is a weekly feature on “06880.” Please click here to support your hyper-local blog. Thank you!)

8 responses to “Friday Flashback #348

  1. Brandon Malin

    The Westport Fire Department is inscribing their new engines with the names of the four fallen members. Engine 2 (built in 2018) has “Chief Frank L. Dennert” on the side near the driver’s door, and Engine 6 (built in 2020) has “FF. Francis P. Dunnigan” on it in the same location. I believe they are planning on continuing this for future apparatus.

    • Cheryl Saviano Petrone

      While it’s true that my dad, John Saviano, was injured when the truck exploded, he was not one of the firemen. He was 13 at the time. He did caddy for Babe Ruth and Mr. Ruth came to the hospital to visit those who were injured. Thanks for sharing the story.

  2. Hello Dan: that “nurse” looking on while the Babe autographs a baseball for Nookie Powers is in fact Nookie’s then or soon to be wife Virginia “Jinx” Powers, nee Closson.

  3. John Gallagher was my great grandfather and I’ve only heard stories from other firefighters about this tragic day. The one good thing that came from this day was the beginning of Truck Placarding .. The warning symbols that firefighters today use to determine potential dangerous materials that they are carrying. That day on the Post Rd if they had known what was in those drums they may not have opened those doors and hit the Hot Rubber with water causing the explosion.

  4. Carl Addison Swanson, Wrecker, '66.

    Good times. When the downtown fire station was next to the YMCA and across from the movie theater (jeez kids had stuff to do back then?), we kids used to play with the dogs, each lunch with the fireman and hopefully, catch a ride on the fire truck. There is no personal interaction here anymore. Soon, it will be one big town from Greenwich to Old Saybrook.

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