January 20, 2019

Out of Disaster


Sixty years ago this August a convergence of two vicious hurricanes tore the Naugatuck River Valley apart. And it was a convergence of drive and risk- taking in the face of overwhelming community need that enabled a modest family construction business to become an integral part of the restoration and transform itself in the process.

With mute black-and-white photographs we revisit the destruction, the bridges rebuilt and the large dams created, and with a few words we recall that the flood’s aftermath was a kind of fuel to empower O&G’s growth. But what drove the small company was working in a town that had been demolished in a matter of hours and living in the middle of a community that needed vital services back on line. Time was of the essence: 47 lives had been washed away in the state, but many more were at risk in the aftermath.

Two days after the flood waters receded the Army Corps of Engineers, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross all set up camp in Torrington. Heavy equipment was brought in from all directions. The community mobilized. The recovery process clearly would be long. “It took a good portion of the next year before things were half-way normal,” recalls Sonny Savanella.

Savanella has been retired from O&G since 1996. But in November of 1955, the twenty-four year old was a new full-time hire and thrown into flood recovery work. “The bridges were all out and we were running all around the state to pick up Bailey bridges that were war surplus. Before the flood things were slow for everyone in construction. Unfortunately, I’d say, there was suddenly lots of work everywhere,” he says. Close to the Naugatuck many roads were made impassable by erupted pavement and heaped-up debris that had once been homes. Houses and businesses had washed away. Ground floors and higher were drenched and now moldering. Foundations were cracked, streets were furrowed open. There was no sanitary sewer. No power. No telephone service. Gasoline was hard to come by. Milk tankers were requisitioned to haul in water.

“With the bridges out Torrington was cut in half. If you were on the east side of the river and needed to get to the hospital you’d have to drive up to Norfolk and down through Goshen,” Savanella remembers. Because he had a Jeep he was one of a few permitted to drive on an intact rail line to shuttle emergencies to the hospital.

Savanella had a child in diapers and no water, telephone or electricity himself. “My in-laws up on the Winsted Road had water but no power, so we’d bring our laundry and diapers up there. We rigged a belt from a lawn mower to the well pump to get water to wash.”

Gene McKeon’s first day of full-time work with O&G was the day after the flood hit. He remembers the scenes vividly. “We were working everywhere, all the time. Driveways were out. Cellars were collapsed. Water came out the third floor of the brass mill downtown. Our garage at South Main, the hillside behind washed into it and it was filled with gravel, filled to the windows. We used loaders to get it out. And the dump all washed down the hill. There were rats, I mean everywhere,” he laughs, now.

“We went and got a big, I mean humongous, generator from Brooklyn so we could run the Redi- Mix plant,” McKeon recalls. “We hooked a lawn mower with a belt to the gas pump so we could draw gas and carry it in buckets to the generator to keep it running. We had one guy, that’s all he did, back and forth to keep it running. We worked as many hours as we could stand. Everybody cooperated. We just wanted things back to normal.”

Ray and Francis recruited and hired and seemed to have a sixth sense about it, especially when it came to chosing bosses. They hired local young men and ninety percent of them, says McKeon, wound up being very successful managers in the company as it grew.

In 1958 O&G was awarded its biggest job to date, a $4M contract to build a dam in Thomaston that would prevent another such tragedy. It would be 2,000 feet long and 142 feet high. Three other dams and two levees would be ordered in the years that followed. But the Thomaston Dam was nearly a miss for O&G. Savanella remembers: “O&G had the lowest bid for the dam but the Corps was not going to give it to them. They said, ‘You never built a dam before.’ They were getting pressure from the big companies I believe. So the boys [young Francis, Raymond and George Oneglia] drove up to the Corp’s headquarters and said, ‘If you don’t let us build it we’ll never know how.’ It worked.” Savanella continues: “The boys I give a lot of credit. They were working 75 to 80 hours a week like we all were. We all felt we had to. The money was nice but you just needed to get life back to normalcy.”

Out of disaster, with many hands in a common purpose, resurrecting the drive recently exerted in the great war, a community was patiently pieced back together, stronger than it was before, and the foundations of a regional construction powerhouse were laid.