Yankee Classic: July 1990The dogs knew first. Ivan and Merle, Charles and Mable Besozzi’s two big, black English retrievers, had been restless all the day of July 10, 1989. “The dogs never settled down,” Mrs. Besozzi said, “and they’re very gentle and very smart. They sensed something.” By late afternoon Ivan and Merle were pacing around the old white-clapboard farmhouse in Cornwall, Connecticut, and Mable was having a hard time keeping them calm.
Radio reports warned of severe thunderstorms. Charles went to a window of the living room and looked out over the broad slopes of towering evergreens and a gentle, sunlit meadow. At the far end, in the rolling wooded hills where Route 7 turns and twists, was a dark and brutish cloud unlike any storm he had ever seen, and it was bearing down on the old village.
One of the dogs whimpered softly; Mrs. Besozzi talked to them. Her husband turned to her and said flatly, “I think we’re in for a helluva thunderstorm.”
This was a tornado, just one of several that were ripping through western Connecticut and parts of Massachusetts, New York, and Long Island, and Connecticut was taking the worst of it.
Telephone and power lines to more than 75,000 homes and businesses were going down fast. The tornadoes damaged countless homes and businesses, destroyed others, and uprooted majestic trees that had glorified local communities for decades. It would take days to understand the scale of the havoc.
Twelve-year-old Jennifer Bike of Stratford was killed when a tree limb crushed the tent she and three other Girl Scouts were sleeping in at Black Rock State Park on the Thomaston-Watertown line. Angelo Antico, 69, collapsed in his home in Watertown moments after the storms and died of cardiac arrest. Dozens of injuries were reported. Within 48 hours big sections of New Haven and scenic Litchfield Counties would be declared disaster areas. Damage estimates would reach $125 million.
Stand on a hill anywhere around Cornwall, even now, a year later, and the sound of a chain saw catches on the wind; the loggers are still busy. Cordwood has been free for the asking all year long, and the lumbermen say that good wood has been so cheap that it’s barely paid for the trucking. They’ve taken millions of board feet out of this one town alone, much of it more than two feet wide. Some has been wreckage from the historic 42-acre Cathedral Pines- 80-,100-, 150-foot-tall white pines and hemlocks dating back to the late 1700s, one of the largest stands in New England, snapped off like so many brittle matchsticks.
Buyers from big international lumber companies combed the hillsides for veneer logs of oak, writing checks as they went. Along Valley Road, just below the Besozzis’ house, huge logs lay trimmed and stacked like firewood; none of it was from their property. Besozzi was one of the lucky ones, though standing there at his living room window, defiantly watching the world come apart last July, he wasn’t sure he would be.
“Too fast,” he said with a shake of his head. “It was all happening too damned fast. Guy asked me later what color was it. ‘What color?’ I says. ‘I don’t know. Just dark, is all. Real dark.’ The thing was, right here it didn’t rain at all, and the sun stayed out the whole time.”
Over in Bantam, Donna Deering looked out the window of her house on Cathole Road, stared into sudden darkness, and heard the wind roar so loud she couldn’t think, except to grab her year-old son Charles and back off. As she did, a 25-year-old oak snapped in two, and the top of it crashed onto the porch, a scant few inches away from the window.
“I prayed,” she said. “I prayed that we’d be all right, and we were.”
Moments later the heart of town lay in ruin.
At their 270-acre farm off East Cornwall Road, just over the town line in Goshen, Steve Kubish, his sister Mary, and their hired man, Dave Sterling, went indoors when the hard rain fell and thunder started to roll.
“It was extremely dark,” he said, “and the thunder never stopped, just kept on loud and real steady-like. The wind blew the glass right out of some of the windows. None of us was hurt, but things in the house started blowing around pretty good.
“The rain started blowing in, and then it was coming down through the kitchen ceiling. There was a lot of tin on the roof, and it blew that off. The woodhouse off the kitchen, it ripped that roof right off, rafters and everything.
“It was getting a little lighter, so I ran upstairs to get a look out on the yard. The chicken house was blown away, and the barn was knocked flat. With the addition we put on it, the barn was 120 feet long. We’ve got beef cows and pigs and goats and sheep, so we all rushed right out.
“A cow and bull in the barn were dead,” Kubish said, “and a cow and bull outside were dead, and Albert, my old white billy goat, he’d been blown into the side of the barn where we keep the winter supply of hay. He was pinned upside down with a beam on top of his head, a 12″-by-12” oak beam that went the length of the barn. I got my chain saw and cut it away, but the three of us still had a devil of a time lifting it off him.
“He got to his feet and just stood there,” Kubish said. “Albert was all right, but it was very, very close.”
Herbert Lape got into his new white, four-wheel-drive Toyota wagon in West Cornwall and set out to pick up his wife Madeline, who was working at the town hall 3-1/2 miles away down in the village.
“It was sprinkling,” he said, “but the sky was very dirty. By the time I got into the village, it had turned a peculiar yellow, then green, and there was lots of lightning, and it got very, very dark and the wind was blowing hard. I wasn’t too worried. When you’re in a car, you feel pretty secure.
“I turned down Pine Street, the main street in the village, and I got to within a block of town hall. There was a tree lying across the road. I didn’t even see it come down; it was just there all of a sudden. I turned around, thinking I’d get back to the main road where there were fewer trees.
“I stopped at the intersection of Route 125 to let another car pass, and the old maple tree in front of Gisela Lichtenberger’s house fell and crushed the hood of my car. It was raining hard, raining in torrents, and I couldn’t see anything, what with the tree leaves all over. The limbs had pinned the doors shut, and I couldn’t get out. Then the top of the maple across the road blew down and fell across the back of the car.”
Lape’s friend, Chan Tenny, found him there moments later, couldn’t open the car doors, and went to the fire department for help. The dispatcher radioed for volunteers to help a man trapped in a car at Pine and Route 4.
Madeline Lape heard the call over the Plectron radio unit in town hall. “She knew it was her husband,” said first selectman Richard Dakin. “I don’t know how, but she knew.” She did not learn until later that Herbert was OK.
Tenny came back through the downpour with Asa Goddard from the fire department. The tree limbs that sealed the driver’s-side door of Lape’s car shut were too big to handle, but with a small pruning saw they were able to cut away branches on the passenger side and pry that door open. Herbert Lape climbed out.
“I wasn’t scared or anything,” said Lape, who is 81. “It all happened too fast. I didn’t realize until I got out of the car that I was soaking wet and I was covered with powdered glass. It was from the windshield.”
Back down Pine Street, tax collector Helen Migliaccio got in her car to head home and more trees fell. One was in front of her, another behind. Power lines lay all around. She sat still and waited, not daring to touch anything for fear of being electrocuted. “We got to her pretty quickly,” a friend said, “but she was absolutely terrified. I’ve never seen anyone so shaken up. Of course, by then there was no power anywhere, so those lines were all dead; but she didn’t have any way of knowing that.”
One of the six Doric columns that marked stately, 141-year-old Rumsey Hall on the edge of Cornwall Village Green as a classic Greek Revival building had rotted and fallen a year earlier and then was replaced as restoration slowly got under way. In seconds the tornado ripped off part of its roof and kicked out another column.
A house and cottage next door on Bolton Hill Road dated to the early 1800s, and they took a beating, too; but they weren’t empty. Ben Gray, Dr. Anna Timell, and their three children — Benjamin, 12; Maja, 6; Christen, S — were all there, and Gray’s mother, Claire, 77, was in an upstairs bedroom.
“Anna had just taken some clothes in off the line when the rain started,” Gray said. “Huge drops of rain and darkness and lightning with incredible thunder and wind. It was just amazing.”
Then the trees started falling — altogether, 87 toppled on Gray’s three acres. One fell into the south side of the house. Gray heard glass breaking and suddenly papers and leaves were swirling and flying all over. The children were scared. “I tried to make fun of it,” Gray said. “I tried to be silly. ‘Oh, look,’ I told them, ‘Just like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.’ But it was more like H. G. Wells. Anna took the kids down into the cellar to sing songs as loud as they could.”
Gray ran upstairs to check on his mother. He tried to open the door but couldn’t. It was glued tightly shut by the difference in air pressure between the two rooms. He shouted to her but got no answer. He put his ear to the door and could hear Claire Gray hollering for help. He pushed. She pulled. After several tries they broke the storm’s air lock and got the door open. “A tree limb had broken the window, and dirt and leaves were blowing all around the room, but she was OK. Three days later though, she was still finding little bits of glass in her hair.”
In the cellar Anna and the children got through “Rock-A-Bye-Baby,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and “The Mockingbird Song”; then the storm moved up the valley toward the Besozzis. “Three songs,” Gray said, “and it was over. The sky was light, and the air was so still it was eerie. You could hear sirens from somewhere. “When the wind blows now, the kids don’t sleep and neither do I. We all just listen.”
Charles Besozzi watched the storm moving his way and saw trees toppling and snapping. He raised his voice a little and called to Mable, who was in the kitchen with the dogs.
“What do you do in a tornado?”
“Go down the cellar,” she said.
“Well, I’m not going down the cellar,” he said. His 86 years had earned him the right to be about as ornery as he pleased; besides, the storm seemed to split as Besozzi watched. There were two tornadoes now, and they ripped through the trees on both sides of the meadow, skipped by Besozzi’s house, tore the top off his barn silo, and moved on up towards Great Hill.
A while later he walked outdoors and looked up that way. Two hikers were coming toward him.
“There are trees down everywhere up there,” one of them said. “What happened?”
“Damned if I know,” Besozzi said.