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A Normal Day Descends Into Chaos

By Karin Crompton

Published September 21. 2008 4:00AM   Updated September 15. 2009 11:28AM

By about 2 o'clock on Sept. 21, a breezy afternoon turns windy. Rain starts falling. Branches come down and trees are bending low. By the end of the school day, a little after 3, the wind is frenzied; trees are being uprooted, giving way easily in ground softened by days of rain.

In New London and other towns, students are sent home in the storm.

Ruth Peck, 17, rides a bus home from the Williams Memorial Institute in New London, an all-girls high school. The bus driver picks his way up and down streets looking for a clear path. He drops Peck off a couple of blocks away from her family's cottage on Park Street, and she jumps nonchalantly over downed wires on her way home.

"I didn't know they were live," says Peck, now Ruth Swatsburg. "They were kind of moving around in the street."

Employees start leaving work early, even as windows shatter, tarpaper peels off roofs and roads begin to flood.

Gladys Whitehead, 28, leaves early from her job at Sunoco Products in New London. Her co-worker's father, Mr. Gleason, loads Whitehead and two other women into his car to take them home.

"We went toward the railroad station and one gust of wind picked that automobile right off the surface. Right off," says Whitehead, "and let us down again."

Sally Ryan, a third-grader at St. Joseph School in New London, is riding home after her father comes to get her and some neighborhood kids. He drops off Ryan and her sister first, and as he opens their car door, Mr. Ryan struggles to keep it open against the wind. The storm is worsening.

"We just had no clue," says Sally Ryan, now the city historian. "We had been home for lunch at noon and nothing was on the news."

Seeking shelter

With sustained winds of 121 mph, the hurricane strands thousands of people at their jobs, in schools, or wherever they find refuge. A storm surge— many reported a tidal wave 30 to 40 feet high rolling up the Thames River or coming in off the ocean in Rhode Island—floods streets and forces people to sprint for higher ground.

A dozen women from Christ Episcopal Church in Westerly, picnicking in Misquamicut, move from one cottage to another for safety. Both buildings wash away, killing all 12. Their pastor had left the picnic early to attend a funeral and survives.

The sky is somewhere between light and dark when a man comes running into 5-year-old Betty Simonelli's two-family house on Allyn Street in Stonington, shouting for the families to get out. Water is seeping under the back door.

The man was telling everyone in the neighborhood to seek shelter in a large moving van parked at the top of Masons Island Road.

Somehow, with the truck parked facing the wind, the gusts don't topple it over.

In Stonington, the Bostonian train, which had left Grand Central Terminal at noon, is stranded with 252 passengers.

Engineer Harry Easton leaves the engine, walks to the tower 1,000 feet away, and finds himself in waist-deep water by the time he returns. Train staff move passengers to the front, uncouple the head car from the rear and drive the train forward.

They drag utility poles and wires along the rails until the wires snap, and then the train comes upon a house blocking the tracks.

"He edged his locomotive gently up to the structure and nudged it slowly aside," says the book "A Wind to Shake the World." "As its sills cleared the rails, the house toppled over and vanished into deep water."

The train comes to a stop directly across from the Culley home on Cutler Street. The family takes in eight or 10 people from the train. Jim Culley, 16, and a man walk to the parking lot of an A&P grocery store. They open an unlocked truck and pull out cases of soda and food to take back.

Many students are stuck at school until late in the night.

Robert Stearns, an eighth-grader at West Broad Street School in Pawcatuck, joins other students in a first-floor classroom after the principal evacuates the second and third stories. They stay there about a half hour, until the first window explodes, and then run into the hall.

"Standing in the hall of the school while the wind whipped around the building and the moaning sound continued without pause was one of the scariest things that I have ever experienced," Stearns says in a draft of his autobiography. "From time to time we could hear one of the windows shatter with a crash. This crashing sound of breaking windows stopped after about an hour. By that time all of the windows had broken."

New London burns

At about 4:30 p.m., a fire is spotted in the Humphrey-Cornell Co. grocery store near Bank Street in downtown New London, and it quickly spreads to a nearby coal yard, fire station and auto garage. All are destroyed.

Over the next eight to 10 hours, the fire destroys more than 25 buildings and threatens to burn the entire city.

Some think it was started by downed wires. One story, in The Connecticut Circle Magazine in November 1938, says the fire might have started when the five-masted school ship Marsala pushed across the railroad tracks and destroyed the corner of a building, bursting a boiler.

Everyone agrees on this: It is the worst fire in New London since Benedict Arnold torched the city in 1781.

The fire gets a head start because power is out, a box alarm cannot be sounded, and the phones are out of order. Volunteers drive to Waterford to get the Oswegatchie and Jordan fire companies. On their way, the Waterford crews pull trees and poles out of the road.

Submarine base sailors and the National Guard are called in to help.

"At the height of the fire, 'suicide squads' of National Guardsmen entered stores of Montgomery-Ward Co. and the Eaton & Wilson Co. and removed stocks of cartridges, shells, shot gun powder and other explosives to a safe place," reported The Day, "and the tasks were accomplished successfully.

" Varying reports have the fire finally under control around midnight or 2 a.m.

When the storm abates, Sally Ryan leaves her house on Montauk Avenue, walks down a few streets, and looks north up the Thames River.

"I'll never forget the sky—it was like a huge sun setting," she says. "Right in the midst of the city, this gigantic big glow, the fire.

" In the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, where Norma Carradori (now Norma White) and her family have sought shelter in the Coast Guard station, the flames are visible.

"We thought it was the end of the world, actually," she says. "You know when you're a youngster, those are the first thoughts that come to your mind. ... We thought it was the end of the world coming, with New London burning and waters rising."

Aftermath

Sept. 22, 1938, is warm and the sky is brilliantly sunny, washed clean of the storm.

After they take stock of their own damage, people venture out to look around. Ruth Peck walks to Ocean Beach. Houses that once lined the boardwalk are turned around. Others are split open or tumbled onto their sides.

According to one story, 100 summer cottages there have been swept to sea in five minutes. Some have been hurled into nearby Alewife Cove. Peck and a friend scramble up and into them, searching for mementos. The National Guard has not yet cordoned off the area.

Ocean Beach is forever changed.

Along the shoreline, train tracks are washed away or twisted into uselessness, including sections in Stonington and along Niantic Bay. It takes weeks to restore Boston-to-New York service.

Everywhere, trees are down. It is five years before the U.S. Forest Service closes its offices in Willimantic, announcing that it has salvaged the last of the hurricane timber.

The houses on Napatree Point are gone forever. In Misquamicut, only five of more than 400 cottages are standing. Seaweed is found in the gutter of a Rhode Island house five miles from the sea. Downtown New London rebuilds, but gaps remain.

The storm, it is later learned, had sprinted north, buffeted by high pressure systems on either side that prevented it from blowing out to sea.

"New England suddenly found itself at the bottom of an atmospheric abyss between two plateaus," says the Oct. 3, 1938, issue of Time Magazine. "The effect would hardly have been much more catastrophic had a new Grand Canyon of the Colorado suddenly opened in the Connecticut Valley."

Says Sally Ryan: "A defining moment in many, many people's lives is the '38 Hurricane. You never forget where you were. Never. It's like: Where were you when the '38 hurricane hit, when Pearl Harbor (happened), Dec. 7, when you heard the news that John F. Kennedy died? You go, 'These are the moments that you can tell exactly where you were when you heard the news'—and with the '38, exactly where you were when the hurricane struck."

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