About 100 Ansonia fourth-graders got a history lesson Friday on the Flood of 1955 from five people who lived through the ordeal.
The students at Prendergast School recently completed a unit on natural disasters, including the flood which ravaged the Naugatuck Valley 63 years ago after rain from back-to-back hurricanes swelled waterways throughout Connecticut.
The worst of the flooding occurred Aug. 19, 1955 — known thereafter as “Black Friday.”
Paul Petruccione, a teacher at Prendergast, was a 6-year-old boy living in Watertown at the time.
He told the children he remembers being woken up about 4 a.m. by the “tremendous noise” of an overflowing brook behind his family’s home.
“It sounded like a train coming through my bedroom,” Petruccione said.
Fortunately the water didn’t reach higher than the house’s basement, but he and his family were stranded without power.
“It went on for two days. We couldn’t leave and there was water everywhere,” he said.
The waters receded and the family saw the widespread devastation in nearby Waterbury after waiting for hours to receive typhoid shots.
“There were a bunch of restaurants and stores that we used to go to. They were all gone,” he said.
Joan Lawlor, 16 at the time of the flood, lived on Ansonia’s Jewett Street and had a summer job at a department store downtown.
She told the students how she and other employees were called in to work to move merchandise onto trucks as the floodwaters rose.
The flood was so powerful it uprooted the railroad tracks and “the trains were tossed around like toys,” she said.
“The devastation was terrible and something I’ll never forget,” Lawlor said.
Elsie Velaski was a young mother living in Seymour in 1955 taking care of a 3-year-old girl.
Her home was in a flood plain, and she said the house’s cellar would flood every January with the winter thaw.
“But this was something different,” Velaski said.
The floodwaters filled her family’s basement up to uppermost step to the first floor — but stopped there, fortunately.
Others weren’t as lucky.
She said she recalled watching the raging river carrying everything from trailers to cars to houses — even coffins and bodies buried in a cemetery bordering the river.
Frank Haines was a 14-year-old Seymour resident of downtown Seymour in 1955.
His family’s home was on high ground and spared damage.
He recalled hundreds of people gathering on a hill near the intersection of West Street and Derby Avenue watching the flood wreak havoc downtown.
“We watched as the water got higher and higher. And the first house on Third Street, the water picked it up and it kind of turned, came off its foundation, and we watched it go over the falls,” Haines said. “We watched Third Street disappear one house after the other.”
Two women living on the street were killed as their home was swept away, as those gathered across the river looked on, unable to do anything to intervene
“That’s the saddest part,” Haines said. “No one could possibly help them. That was one of the hardest things you could see.”
Haines was one of several witnesses to the flood who spoke to former Valley Indy reporter Jodie Gil for a website she built about the flood with testimonials and historical accounts.
Click the play button on the video below to watch.
Click here to see the website.
In the aftermath Haines said he and other volunteers spent the summer’s last weeks shoveling mud and debris out of buildings.
“We did that for a long time,” Haines said. “It was probably the only year of my life I couldn’t wait for school to start.”
Jim Crowley lived on Ansonia’s Myrtle Street and worked at a downtown clothing store in 1955.
Employees had just packed the basement with winter coats to sell in the coming weeks but were called in to move them to the upper floors.
“Nobody thought that the water would go any higher than the basement,” Crowley said. “But the water kept rising.”
A marker and plaque on the Spector’s Furniture building on Main Street still shows the flood’s high water mark.
As the waters rose into building’s first floor, Crowley and several others sought refuge on the its roof.
They watched as Peter Waniga helped people cross the Maple Street bridge to get to refuge at the Ansonia Armory. The bridge was later swept away — with Waniga’s station-wagon with it — though he was able to escape.
A helicopter sent from Sikorsky tried to rescue Crowley and the others on the roof but couldn’t because there were several television antennas on the building, he said.
Fortunately a national guard truck arrived soon after to which they were able to climb.
“It was a very harrowing experience,” Crowley said.
But, as he and others noted, one through which the people of the Valley persevered.
“It took an awful lot of willpower and hard work to bring these communities back to where they are today,” he said, urging the children to ask their grandparents who witnessed the flood about their own experiences. “It was a very, very long journey.”
Click here for a story about a 2015 Ansonia event commemorating the 60th anniversary of the flood.