The River Restaurant Explosion, 25 Years Later

Note:The River Restaurant explosion was 28 years ago Friday. This article was first published in 2010

Thomas Lenart, Sr. remembers going into the building — although, at that point, it was no longer a building.

Andy Cota, a police officer and future chief of the department, was with him.

A woman’s hand popped up through the rubble.

“I remember a lady who reached up through the floor. It shocked the hell out of me,” Lenart said.

Courtesy David Lenart

Courtesy David Lenart

Courtesy David Lenart

Courtesy David LenartLenart remembers dragging the woman out. He doesn’t remember who she was or if she survived.

A short time later he had blood on him. It wasn’t his.

25 Years Later

The building that housed the River Restaurant at 268 Main St. exploded at 3:50 p.m. Dec. 6, 1985.

It remains one of the Valley’s deadliest events.

Six people were killed.

People within a 10-block area were evacuated.

The force of the explosion blew the front of the building across Main Street. The structure collapsed onto itself, fire raging.

It took four hours to dig a survivor from the rubble.

A ruptured gas line was the culprit. Eighteen people were inside the restaurant when it exploded. Twelve people were injured, as were a pedestrian and a firefighter.

Those killed included:

  • Concetta ‘Connie’ Ippolito Pogozelski, 57, of Minerva Street, Derby. She was the sister of River Restaurant owner Alphonse Ippolito. She was the widow of Charles Pogozelski. She worked as a waitress at the restaurant and was president of the Naugatuck Valley chapter of the Business and Professional Women’s Association, according to The Evening Sentinel archive.
  • Bernice Kiley Shortell, 59, of Elm Street, Ansonia. She was the wife of Valley football icon Matthew ‘Pop’ Shortell, Jr. The 1943 Derby High School graduate was working as a secretary at North Atlantic Medical Services at the time.
  • Dorothy Bernice Shortell, 21 of Elm Street, Ansonia. She was the daughter of Matthew ‘Pop’ Shortell and the late Bernice Kiley Shortell who also died in the incident. Shortell was a senior psychology major at Central Connecticut State University and a 1982 graduate of Ansonia High School, according to The Evening Sentinel. She was the former captain of the Ansonia High School Chargerettes basketball team and played volleyball and softball at the school as well.
  • Thomas Nedavaska, 31, a lifelong Shelton resident, was the son of Frank J. and Catherine Healey Nedavaska, Sr. of Shelton. He was the restaurant’s chef and a 1972 graduate of Shelton High School, where he played baseball.

The Evening Sentinel also reported that Stratford’s Albert Paolozzi, 60 and his wife, Mabel, 58, died in the explosion.

Looking Back

It may be 25 years after the fact, but the sights and sounds from that day are still fresh.

Lenart was a Derby police sergeant and an assistant chief with Derby Storm Ambulance at the time of the explosion.

He and Clarence Douglas were in an ambulance leaving Griffin Hospital when the call came in.

Turning onto Seymour Avenue, Lenart said he saw a haze covering downtown Derby.

He and Douglas arrived at the building — “What was left of it,” Lenart said.

He remembers the building starting to shake and shift while firefighters and police searched for more people. He remembers owner Al Ippolito trying to get back into the building to dig out his son, Michael.

Firefighters risked their lives to rescue Michael Ippolito, according to a story by Gary Baker published in the Sentinel.

“He was pinned by rubble between what was left of the basement and the first floor,” Derby Fire Marshal Phil Hawks, then an assistant fire chief, told the Sentinel in 1985.

Firefighters trained their hoses on the area, trying to keep the fire away from Ippolito while others dug tunnels to get him. Firefighters worried that if the fire didn’t get him, he may drown from the amount of water being used.

Ippolito was pulled out about 8 p.m. He was taken to Griffin Hospital, then transferred to Yale-New Haven.

The Valley Remembers

On Monday morning, we asked readers of our Facebook page to share their thoughts on the 25th anniversary of the River Restaurant explosion.

This is what they wrote:

Jennifer L. Zielinski: I remember this day. Me, my cousin and her parents were getting ready to leave to eat there when we heard the (explosion). We had a view from her kitchen window into downtown and saw the column of smoke. We were running late or we might have been there too.

Ann MacFadden: At the time I was not married but I was at my then future husband’s waiting for him to come home from work. Our friend calling and telling me the news his parents left a note saying they were going to the River Restaurant for dinner and they were not home yet. They were two of the six.

Margo Bondi: I remember that I was going to order a pizza about a half hour before this tragic accident and that we were to pick it up right around the time of the explosion…..fate, karma….?????

Mary Loftus: I remember getting ready to go there for TEAM’s Christmas Party. I was working at the hospital at the time and we went into Code Orange (I believe) for the first time I ever knew. I sat for hours with Mrs Nedevaska awaiting news on her son, Tommy.

Pat Kolesar Nishti: God Bless the “Paolozzi Family” & All the Families left behind…Terrible tragedy RIP always…

Karyn Shea: I remember my friend and her boyfriend were supposed to be going there for dinner that nigh but at the last minute decided not to thank goodness! I believe her mother thought she might have been there for a while, til she heard from her. Also, I remember being at the Valley Cinemas that night and helicopters flying overhead and still being able to see the smoke.

Rick Lucarelli: I remember being one of the first emergency responders on the scene that day. Working all night long and throughout the next day seeing if there were any survivors.

I remember the feeling when one of the deceased was the mother of your friend, that 2 of the deceased was the wife and the other the daughter of a great man who I knew all of my life and had the privilege of umpiring baseball games with.

Then 23 years later I decided to purchase the River Restaurant from its original owners. There are so many memories of that day that i think about so very often.

Marianne Marganski: I remember 2 of the 6 that perished that Friday evening…Dorothy and Bernice Shortell… God rest their souls, taken too soon.

Eddie Tatro: I remember my mom was suppose to go there for an event of some sort and thankfully she deiced to go somewhere else. May all that died that night rest in peace and the families left behind may you be comforted by God.

Pj Keane: It was a day we lost some great people God bless Tom and Connie.

Janet Arlene Roberge: I remember that day i was walking by and I remember Phil Lebraque running in saving people.

Lizzy Carbone Genovese: I remember my then fiance (now ex) said he was sitting at the light about where the ice cream shop is by the end of Home Depot and saw it happen. He worked at Derby Savings cleaning at night and that became a place of refuge for many while… the fire blazed on.

I played basketball and softball against Dottie and her Dad was at so many of the games and they were truly the supportive sporting family to all the kids that they ever played with or against… all kids were just part of a bigger family.

My heart goes out to all that we there that day and their families… it is a memory that never goes away knowing they moved from location (over by Hubbell’s) to that new location and then to this side of town – truly a strong family as well!

Kristen Jecusco: I remember hearing the explosion and feeling it too…I lived on Caroline Street at the time and will never forget that day.

Chuck Mikulski: Christine Poirer and I were driving across the Commodore Hull Bridge when it blew up.

John Dantona: Storm’s firefighters working to cut and dig through two basement walls to make an amazing rescue from the burning collapsed basement of the River Restaurant. I was 15 years old and watched this tragedy late into the night. A great loss for the valley. a great family, great restaurant.

Sandy Wakeman Mansfield: I was working, then picked up children and went to dancing school for my daughter. I remember Mrs.Shortell. She played the piano when I went to dancing school at Mary Kiley’s Dancing school. She was a lovely person. I also remember hearing the explosion from where I worked in Derby.

Matthew Sabetta: I remember this day like it was yesterday. I was 9 years old. My mom Julie Sabetta worked at TEAM which was a ways up main street, @ number 256.

TEAM’s annual christmas party would have started at 5 pm that evening at the River Restaurant . . .Had it exploded an hour later my mother could very well have been hurt or killed.

Along with many of her coworkers of which many are still close friends of my mother’s and the family’s to this day. It certainly was a big reality check.

Afterward i remember hearing how sad it was that the Pop Shortell lost his family members. Natural Gas is nothing to mess with.

The Cause

At the time of the explosion, Derby had just installed a 24-inch sewer system in the street next to the building. An 87-year-old gas line was ruptured during the installation of the sewer lines, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The report is posted below. Article continues after the document.

River Restaurant Report

There was a lack of communication between the gas company, the contractor hired by Derby and the engineering firm hired by Derby for the project, the feds said.

The feds concluded:

“In this accident each of the three parties, the contractor, the gas company, and Genovese, apparently all assumed it was the other person’s responsibility to protect the gas main.”

“The contractor did not exercise sufficient care in supervising the operation and permitted the excavation, backfill, and compaction close to the cast-iron pipe without sufficient oversight and caution. The gas company did not take the steps necessary to protect its cast-iron pipe even though the pipe was one of the oldest in its system.”

“The resident engineer, who knew the location of the cast-iron gas main and its proximity to the sewer construction, neither cautioned the contractor nor alerted the gas company to the potential hazard. No on-site communication took place among the three parties and as a result, the gas main was broken.”

Lessons Learned

The incident caused Derby firefighters to start carrying gas meters. It also promoted mass casualty training among area agencies.

The incident caused the federal government to issue warnings about old gas mains. The state’s “call before you dig” effort was a direct response to what happened in Derby.

“There were a lot of lessons learned that day,” Lenart said.

Editor’s Note: Just last month Lenart’s son, David, was given photos from the incident.

David Lenart, a city Alderman, just purchased a house that was previously owned by the late Charlie Roddick, a volunteer with Derby’s Hotchkiss Hose. Roddick’s son found the photos and gave them to Lenart.

The photos are posted within this story. More photos — along with color shots from other incidents dating back to 1968 — are available here.


posted by: jpdevin on December 6, 2010  7:24pm

Tommy Nedavaska was a real nice guy. Always pleasant, when you you saw him.

posted by: Art Stone on December 7, 2010  1:51am

So there was no interstate “Transportation” vehicle (truck, airplane, boat), and the gas line was a local distribution line, not an interstate pipeline.  Why did the Federal Government get involved?

posted by: Proffjimbob on December 7, 2010  8:37am

Those who don’t remember this tragic story will think these events MUST be rare just because it stands out in our memories 25 years later. They are wrong. Explosions happen daily yet appear in only scattered newspapers across the country.
  I investigated gas leaks in this area for 15 years and was fired and blacklisted for talking to homeowners about leaks. Leaks are everywhere. Yesterday, a man died in San Francisco when his apartment exploded and burned to the ground. It won’t appear in New England newspapers. The River explosions made little news elsewhere.
  Every town with gas lines has a list of leak addresses that are handed out on a regular schedule to be rechecked. Some leaks have been in existence for years. A city the size of New Haven has hundreds of them. I know, I’ve found some and rechecked others. Talking to homeowners about it cost me my career and almost my home. How safe is yours?