Editor's note: The Spaulding Pond Dam Break and ensuing flood story that is related here is also chronicled in a definitive history of the event, “A Swift and Deadly Maelstrom: The Great Norwich Flood of 1963,” a book written by local author Thomas Moody and recently published by Xlibris Publishing and available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
In it Moody relates the tragedy of an earthen dam collapse in his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut that took the life of his mother and five others while it raced through town, destroying businesses and causing over $6 million in damage.
It is also the story of supreme heroism as Moody and his two brothers were rescued from the raging torrent by their father, mother (who was subsequently washed under in the murderous flow) and a young neighbor as their car crashed violently after being hit by the wave head on.
Subsequently raised by their mother’s mother and a forever shaken and anguished father, the three boys were nevertheless able to realize a full life and raise families of their own.
Thomas went on to graduate from the Norwich Free Academy High School and Thames Valley State College with a degree in industrial management and now works in the nuclear power field as a supervisor at the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant in Glen Rose.
He lives in Stephenville with his wife D’Ann and children Brooklyn and Evan.
Excerpts from “A Swift and Deadly Maelstrom: The Great Norwich Flood of 1963”
It seemed to come out of nowhere. “Ron!" Honey Moody (24 years old) screamed out to her husband as she saw the torrent of floodwater suddenly engulfing them while they hurtled down Lake St. After turning east at the south end of the playground and before any of them could react, the leading edge of the massive wave, having already travelled two miles from its inception at Spaulding Pond in Mohegan Park, floated their 1957 Ford Fairlane upwards and into its mass, carrying it toward a precipitous drop off just to their right.
Cascading downward and violently flipping over twice, the car then whipped around 180 degrees before it finally ended its cruel journey with its front end tipped downward and facing into its previous line of travel. Becoming wedged, auspiciously as it turned out, against an innocuous garage roof that sloped outward from their flood driven line of travel, the car, with everyone inside having been fiercely tossed about, their first battle, after recovering from the shock of the crash, was with the inundating rush of the still deadly and freezing flood flow.
Through the smashed windows and open passenger side front door of the car, Tony Orsini, 19 years old and an upstairs neighbor to the Moody’s on Lake Street, climbed out with the Moody’s eldest son Tommy, who was then four. Placing him on this precarious roof, Tony then turned toward the overturned car where “Ronnie” Moody (27 years old), the children’s father and Honey’s husband of nearly six years, had also gotten out and was straddling the space between it and the garage roof. Grabbing the middle boy “Jimmy,” 2 ½, from his wife, who was still inside the mangled, upside down car, Ronnie handed him back to Tony who’d positioned himself crouched behind him on the ever tenuous roof.
Honey, after searching frantically, now found her four-month old baby Shawn floating in the swarming deluge inside the car. Grasping the infant and handing him up, Ronnie then switched the baby to cradle him in his left arm while reaching out for his wife with his right hand. It was at this moment, though, that the garage roof that he and those outside the car were standing on gave way momentarily. With the upside down car also being lighter, this unfortunate confluence forced it to shift to Ronnie’s right just as he’d grabbed hold of his wife’s hand. With both their hands being muddy and exceedingly cold, Honey’s slipped out of Ronnie’s grasp and the ensuing current horribly washed her under.
Seeing this, Tony quickly grabbed Ronnie to prevent him from jumping in after her, which he could read as being his next instinctive move.
”Ronnie, she’s gone,” he said desperately. Despondently, agonizingly but yet rationally convinced, Ronnie, with Tony’s help, then gathered the children and walked tenuously across the unsteady roof to a tree that fortuitously hung over the far end of the structure. Here the adults placed the two eldest children (Tommy and Jimmy) on the lower branches while they, with the infant Shawn being held protectively under Tony’s overcoat, climbed up to the higher branches to await rescue.
Within minutes of reaching the tree, the spindly garage roof, which had been their first opportune life saver, collapsed menacingly downward into Lamperelli’s Auto Dealership yard, severely damaging all the cars parked underneath it. Up in the tree, the Moody’s and Orsini would sit and wait for the flood to recede in the freezing night air for over an hour before a nearby funeral home owner would hear their cries for help and organize a party of local volunteers to trudge through the muddy and still flowing waters to get them down.
Where in the world could this unearthly flood flow have come from?
Seemingly just moments ago, Ronnie and Honey had been sitting quietly in their living room about one hundred yards back up the road on Lake St., watching the 10:00 p.m. news on television. Suddenly they were startled by a loud pounding on their living room window, “The dam broke…you need to evacuate!,” came the muffled warning from an unknown voice outside. Rushing to the window and looking out, the owner of the voice was gone, but Ronnie, instead, saw water now running down Lake St. in a streaming flow.
Panicking, he immediately called out to his wife to telephone her mother who lived on the far west side of town, miles away from what was about to occur, and tell her about the dam warning and that they were on their way. Grabbing the children from their beds and asking young Tony Orsini (from the upstairs apartment) to come with them in a prescient request for additional help, they started out on their short, ill fated journey.
A dam breaking? What dam could they be talking about? And what dam held back this much water?
Unknown to virtually everyone who lived in downtown Norwich, Connecticut this March 6, 1963 evening, the 110 year old earthen dam that made up Spaulding Pond, an expanse of over forty-five million gallons of water located in Mohegan Park, the large, forested retreat at the highest elevation in the northern section of town, had been leaking (“seeping”) once again this day. After a terribly cold and precipitous winter and following another day of heavy rains (1.7 inches would actually fall on this March 6th), park workers noticed seepage on the downstream side of the structure about halfway up its earthen content on the eastern side.
Built in 1853 by two inspired city businessmen and with later modifications, this dam was used strictly for a controlled water supply to the downtown area (this was the era where “waterwheels” were the rage for industry efficiency) and thus had no safety factors considered in its design at all. Tree and shrub growth on its earthen content was allowed to grow unabated and, amazingly, it had never been inspected by the governing Connecticut State Water Resources Commission in the fifty-seven years of city ownership.
It was literally a “time-bomb” waiting to go off.
Not surprisingly, the failure mechanism for the collapse was attributed to bad design, poor maintenance and a complete ignorance and complacency toward its potential impact on the town. Dr. Steven Poulos, a Harvard professor of soil mechanics, would testify at the liability and damages trial in Norwich in March of 1966, that this dam had been poorly constructed and maintained and that it had been just a matter of time before a collapse like the one on March 6th 1963 would be experienced.
Placing blame entirely on the town, the court settlement was still strikingly far from satisfying or deserving. The city’s argument was that a payout on the order expected and indeed deserved would bankrupt the town, so consequently they persuaded lawyers for the plaintiffs, who were the actual victims, and their families, that a considerably smaller settlement would be best for all involved. This proved to be not only controversial at the trial’s conclusion, but a major point of contention with the victims and their families throughout their lives. Undoubtedly not understanding or appreciating the full gamut of the legal settlement language, the victims nevertheless went on to accept this agreement, trusting their lawyer’s judgment. But it would soon be apparent that they’d been greatly misled, adding an unjust ending to the already colossal sorrow and grief for which they continued to suffer.
Honey Moody’s body was discovered early the next morning, by her brother, on the Lake St. drop-off point about forty feet northeast of their overturned car. Sadly, had the Moody’s stayed in their home, they would’ve never been affected. Other than very minor basement water, their house saw nary a drop of the adjacent flood water.
After they’d been released from the hospital, the children, with Honey’s mother as the prime caregiver, moved to a low-income housing project on the west side of town. The infant Shawn, who’d come the closest to dying, contracting severe pneumonia, took the longest to recover. Ronnie Moody, however, would never recover. Never remarrying, it was only his responsibility to his children that seemed to keep him going. The egregiously small monetary settlement he received following the trial left him far short of finances to comfortably care for them. He would thus be forced to work tirelessly at a job that he detested for over thirty-eight years just to make ends meet.
Emotionally, he became a shell of his former self. Still, somehow, able to pass on virtuous moral values to his sons, he nevertheless retreated further inward, using drinking as a means of escape, while slowly allowing his health to deteriorate until passing away, painfully, from a litany of issues in 2009. Following the investigation and a restructuring of the town’s emergency response organization, the Spaulding Pond Dam was ultimately rebuilt. Funded, for the most part, by the US Department of Agriculture’s Soils and Conservation Service, demolition of the old dam’s remains began in August of 1964, with the large modern replacement dam being completed and dedicated in September of 1965. This towering new structure would be ten feet higher, containing a concrete base that extended six feet into bedrock. A modern sluiceway and spillway design along with a widened crest and a 30 foot wide roadway augmented with an earthen buttress that extended outward at a significantly flatter slope than its predecessor were but a few of the noticeable upgrades.
But it would not be until March 4, 2006, nearly the forty-third anniversary of the dam collapse, that the rebuilding would be considered “complete.” It was on this frigidly cold day, at the edge of the emergency spillway on the west side of the new dam, facing the beautifully renovated Mohegan Park center, that a ceremony dedicating a stone memorial to those who’d died that terrible night of March 6, 1963 was unveiled.