Friday, September 13, 2019

A Fateful Day on the Mianus River, Part Two

As summer draws to a close, we look back to two more interviews detailing the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge during the early morning of June 28, 1983. Earlier this summer, volunteer Joseph Campbell delved into two representative interviews from first-hand witnesses of events following the bridge collapse that fateful morning.  

As noted, in 1992 the Greenwich Oral History Project published interviews about the event. The resulting book, The Mianus River Bridge Collapseis a compilation of twenty-two interviews. Oral History Project volunteers conducted seventeen interviews, and the National Transportation Safety Board investigators conducted the remaining five.

In this entry, Mr. Campbell reports on two additional interviews from the Oral History Project book. The first is an interview with Mary Oldham, resident of a home near the bridge who stayed close to the disaster all night. The other is with Craig Baggott, a reporter at the time for the Hartford Courant who investigated the bridge inspection system then in place.
Recent photo of the Mianus Bridge
Leslie Yager, Greenwich Free Press
June 28, 1983 was a normal day for Mary Oldham. She woke up, went to work, she and her husband came home and made dinner, relaxed and went to bed. She, like all her neighbors, were awakened after midnight to the sounds of the Mianus Bridge collapsing.  

Mary and other residents had grown used to the bridge and its various sounds. Typical groans and creaks were ignored, but when she and her neighbors heard odd noises, they would call the transportation department and let them know about the stranges sounds emanating from the structure. Prior to the collapse, there were odd noises, and there were phone calls. What was different, though, this time no one got back to them before the bridge fell.  

The sound of the collapsing bridge woke Mary and her husband, but initially they thought it was just very loud thunder. When Mary went to the window, she realized immediately that the bridge was gone. She could not see much of the damage, but that would soon change as darkness bcame morning light. Eventually the rescue teams showed up, the press not far behind.

This was in a time without cell phones or internet. Many of the reporters were camped out in front of her house, and Mary allowed them to use her phone to call in their stories. She remembered, like most, the helicopters and the fire engines and rescue crews and then eventually the repair crews. It would be a long time before life would return to normal for Mary and her neighbors. 

While Mary was watching the collapse from her front yard, Craig Baggott was working for the Hartford Courant the night of the collapse. He remembers the night, not because he was on the scene but because the reports began coming in when he was working. Baggott explains in his interview how he did not report directly on the collapse itself. Rather, working on the projects desk at the Courant, he and others began looking into what led to the disaster.  

Baggott and the team at the Courant began poring over inspection reports of the bridge, and they made several discoveries. One revelation was that the bridge had not been inspected according to standards. After reviewing many reports, it became clear that inspecting a bridge like the Mianus involved a very hands-on process, physically looking at the bridge up close. It turned out that this was rarely done. Instead, the bridge had been inspected with men on the ground with binoculars. Worse, inspection reports had been falsified.  

Subsequent state reports revealed that many of Connecticut’s bridges were also in a state of disrepair. In the wake of the Mianus Bridge collapse, Connecticut eventually began funding inspections and repairs to the bridges to keep this tragedy from happening again, at least for a few years.  

Unfortunately, from a report in Greenwich Time several years ago, to name one such source, we learn that the state still grapples with faulty infrastructure, noting: “The poor condition of the state’s roads and bridges continues to be an issue. A national report earlier this year found that nearly four-fifths of major, locally and state-maintained roads are in poor or mediocre condition and eight percent of bridges are structurally deficient.”

The tragedy that unfolded in Greenwich in 1983 should have sent an urgent message, and yet it appears that message has gone largely unheeded. Will it take another tragedy to alert yet another generation?

[The Mianus River Bridge Collapse: June 28, 1983, An Oral History is available through the Greenwich Library, its branches, and the Perrot Memorial Library. Interview #2418, Mary Oldham, Greenwich resident, and #2471, Craig Baggott, a reporter for the Hartford Courant who investigated the bridge inspection system, can be found in the reference section of the first floor of the library.]

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Fateful Day on the Mianus River

On June 28, 1983, many lives were forever changed. Shortly after midnight a section of the Mianus River Bridge on Interstate 95 in Greenwich, Connecticut collapsed into the river, leaving three people dead and three more injured. The event was a tragedy for the families involved and traumatic for the Greenwich neighborhoods of Cos Cob and Riverside. Residents soon found their lives in turmoil over the scope of the event, not the least of which was massive disruption as traffic was diverted from I-95 to these neighborhoods.

In 1992 the Greenwich Oral History Project published interviews about the event. The resulting book, The Mianus River Bridge Collapse,is a compilation of twenty-two interviews. Oral History Project volunteers conducted seventeen interviews, and the National Transportation Safety Board investigators conducted the remaining five.

Recently, volunteer Joseph Campbell delved into four representative interviews. Two, from first-hand witnesses of events following the collapse that fateful morning, are presented below. The other two will be the subject of a future blog post, culminating in an in depth look at the bridge inspection system at the time.

Today, when the nation’s infrastructure is cause for serious concern, the story of the Mianus River Bridge collapse is more relevant than ever. 

Here is volunteer Joe Campbell’s report on two eyewitness interviews. The first narrator is Werner G. Albrecht, Greenwich resident at the time, who was on the river that night. He heard the collapse and saw vehicles fall into the water. The other is Thomas Brown of the Connecticut State Police, on the scene above the collapse within minutes of the event. 

. . . .

Mianus River Bridge Collapse with trailer portion of fallen truck
Greenwich Library Oral History Project
According to Werner Albrecht, the night of June 28, 1983 was “balmy” with lots of moonlight creating a bright night sky. Mr. Albrecht had been on his boat on the Cos Cob side of the Mianus River near the I-95 bridge at the marina. He had been working on his boat. Later, still on his boat and reading into the night, he realized how late is was. He reached to turn off the light when he heard what he described as a deep roar followed by a loud thump and the screeching of tires. Looking out the window, he watched as car lights began pouring off the I-95 bridge and into the Mianus River. Grabbing his flashlight, he joined others along the water’s edge to begin searching for survivors. At the scene, he couldn’t believe his eyes: “that actually a piece of the roadway was missing, had gone down. There were no lights.”

Thomas Brown, a Connecticut state trooper, was patrolling in the Stamford-Greenwich area at the same time as Werner Albrecht was watching traffic fall from I-95. Soon Brown received a call over his radio about an accident on the highway. Upon arriving at the scene, he noticed that a section of the bridge over the Mianus River had collapsed, creating a large gap where the highway had been. Leaving his vehicle, he heard the pleas for help from the river below. 

This would be the start of a very long heartbreaking next few days for many people. In their interviews Werner Albrecht and Trooper Brown tell stories of the bridge collapse from two different locations and from two different points of view. 

Mr. Albrecht focuses on the reactions of residents along the river, telling of those who previously had complained about the strange noises coming from the bridge—for as long as a month before the collapse. He also describes ordinary people who at 1:30 in the morning came out to help those who had fallen into the river when the road gave way.  

State Trooper Brown describes the accident from above, initially detailing his arrival on the scene. But then he tells of the unnamed hero from Atlanta who with his wife was on a New England vacation and returning from a Yankee’s game, crossing the bridge after midnight. He was driving behind a truck when suddenly the vehicle’s taillights disappeared directly in front him. That was the last truck to fall into the river that night. The Atlanta man managed to stop his car just in time—before he too would have plunged into the river. And then a story of heroism ensues: This unknown driver left the safety of his car after seeing what lay ahead and began to stop traffic before others would have plunged into the waters below. As a result of his actions, the fatality rate would remain at the tragic loss of three lives that night, rather than rising higher. As State Trooper Brown points out, even at that time of night there was considerable traffic on the highway.   

While Mr. Albrecht discusses the rescue and recovery as well as the cleanup that took place in the days and weeks after, primarily from the perspective of the residents, Trooper Brown stays close to the details the havoc created as traffic was diverted. He describes the long backups caused by the collapse. Fortunately, highway crews managed to empty the destroyed section of the highway. Redirecting resulting traffic, however, created it own issues, causing immense congestion through the side streets of Greenwich until the section was repaired. 

Through all the sorrow for lives lost and through all the disruption, there are also heartening stories of people pulling together that night to help those in distress. The community spirit continued in the days ahead as well. Surrounding towns mobilized immediately. Stamford sent its dive team for underwater search and investigation. Other town agencies sent officers to help with traffic control. The National Guard was on the scene with helicopters.

This was a tragedy that touched many lives, the effects continuing to this day. While the interviews were conducted throughout the 80s and into the early 90s, the events are not that far removed from the memories of those in the area who lived through it. While the subject matter is tragic, the interviews serve a purpose, to capture the voices and images of people who were there.  Their words serve as warning and as respectful remembrance of those lost on the night of June 28, 1983.  

The Mianus River Bridge Collapse: June 28, 1983, An Oral Historyis available through the Greenwich Library, its branches, and the Perrot Memorial Library. Interview #2395, Werner G. Albrecht, and #2402, Thomas Brown, Connecticut state trooper at the time of the bridge collapse, can be found in the reference section of the first floor of the library.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Clementine Lockwood Peterson, Her Life and Extraordinary Legacy

At this time of year it is fitting that we honor Clementine Lockwood Peterson, born June 3, 1903. Her extraordinary legacy to the Greenwich Library is well worth remembering. The blog post reprinted below and taken from the Greenwich Library Oral Project’s book The Lady in the Portrait was first published September 24, 2013. The book, comprised of eleven interviews, tells the story of this remarkable woman whose multi-million dollar bequest to the library remains unparalleled.

Below is the original 2013 post: 

There are three portraits hanging in the Greenwich Library, two on the wall to the left of the main entrance and the third in the listening area of the music room on the second floor. Regular visitors will no doubt pass these portraits many times, perhaps glancing at them hurriedly, momentarily wondering why these almost “homey” images are on display in their town library. The two on the first floor are of Mr. and Mrs. J. Whitney Peterson, and the third is of their son, Jonathan. Their family story in many ways reads like a fairy tale of good fortune and graceful living, but it is also a tale of great sorrow. Ultimately though, it is a story of love and generosity. And the lady in the portrait on the first floor of the library, Clementine Lockwood Peterson, is the subject of the Oral History Project’s latest book fittingly entitled, The Lady in the PortraitClementine Lockwood Peterson.

Recently, the Oral History Project hosted a reception to launch the book about Mrs. Peterson’s, her life and her legacy to the Greenwich Library. The reception was not only in recognition of this accomplished and generous woman, but was also to honor those narrators who gave of their time to make this book a reality. 

Born June 3, 1903 in Greenwich, Clementine Lockwood Peterson spent her early life in Ridgefield, Connecticut. She attended prominent schools in the East before graduating from Bennett Junior College, a finishing school, in Millbrook, New York. Then, in 1925, she 
J. Whitney Peterson
married tobacco heir, J. Whitney Peterson, later settling into the Zaccheus Mead Estate in Greenwich where they lived for many years. Mr. Peterson later became president of the United States Tobacco Company. The couple had only one child, Jonathan, of the portrait on the second floor, who was known as Jay.

Mrs. Peterson, who in many ways led a charmed life, came to know tragedy and heartbreak. Jay died in an automobile accident in 1957 at the age of twenty-three and then, just two years later, her husband died. In 1992, after her death on the eleventh of April of that year, to honor her husband and son, Clementine Lockwood Peterson, through her attorneys, left a bequest of $25 million to the Greenwich Library. Her wish was for the funds to be distributed by trustees through a foundation established in her will. The Clementine Lockwood Peterson Foundation was created primarily to benefit two main areas in the library, business and music, in honor of her husband who had led one of the nation’s largest companies and in honor of their son whose great passion had been music. 

Jonathan "Jay" Peterson
The bequest remains the largest ever made to a local library in the United States.

After much deliberation and with deep commitment to honor the terms of the bequest, the Peterson Wing, which added 32,000 square feet to the library and would house, among other subjects, the library’s business and music collections, officially opened its doors on June 12, 1999.

Although she had been born in Greenwich and had spent many years in town, Mrs. Peterson was not a well-known presence at the library. In fact, when news of the bequest was announced, few among the library trustees knew who she was. Many of the narrators in the interviews that make up the book who did know her comment on her penchant for privacy, but she was at the same time an active member of the community. In fact, what emerges from the interviews is a woman with many sides. At various times during her years in Greenwich, she was an active volunteer in local organizations. She was an avid dog breeder and owner of show dogs, literally having written the book on Keeshonds, her favorite breed. In addition to writing, she was a skilled sculptor of animals, primarily of birds and dogs. 

In her personal life, she was the formal Mrs. Peterson, the informal Mrs. Pete, and the familiar Auntie Clem. There is the proper, businesslike mistress of a large estate and the fun-loving hostess with a playful sense of humor. But most poignantly perhaps, there is the observant and caring benefactor who sees need and intervenes to provide help. 

But the light must have gone out of the life of this accomplished and generous woman when she lost in quick succession her son and her husband. A year after her husband’s death, she sold the estate. She then lived for many years in a house on Taconic Road. Finally, she moved to a retirement home, Crosslands, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania where she died in 1992, but not before she meticulously set up one last act of incredible generosity. And the town of Greenwich will forever be the beneficiary of her largess. 

The Lady in the Portrait is a compendium of eleven interviews. They include interviews with three trustees of the Peterson Foundation, past members of the board of trustees of the Greenwich Library and of the Friends of Greenwich Library. Also included are interviews of former employees of the library and an interview with a daughter of a family who were employees of the Petersons at their Greenwich estate. The book is divided into three sections: “The Lady,” “The Bequest,” and “The Legacy.” 

The Lady in the Portrait is available through the Oral History Project office and can be purchased for $18. Call the project office at 203.622.7945 for further information. The book is also part of the library’s circulating collection. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

"Aunt Mary" of the Bush Family: Her life, the Bushes, and Her Nephew, President George H.W. Bush

The following is contributed by Greenwich Library Oral History Project volunteer Joseph Campbell.

This month we are taking a look at the interview of another member of the Bush family, Mary Carter Walker. Mary was married to George H. Walker, Jr., 
George H. Walker, Jr.
Photo: Wikipedia
brother of Dorothy Walker Bush, who was the mother of President George H.W. Bush.

It’s a long and complicated family tree, but suffice it to say, Mary Carter Walker was affectionately known in the Bush family as “Aunt Mary.” And that is who she was.

This interview was completed in 1991 by Greenwich Library Oral History Project volunteer Esther H. Smith.

Mary was born in St. Louis in 1905 and first met her future husband there when they were children. As she describes it, the meeting was not love at first sight. In fact it was not until later when they were in Maine as teenagers that things began to change. His mother came home one day and said, “I met the perfect girl for you today.” When he asked whom that might be, she replied, “Mary Carter,” to which he responded, “Oh Ma.” In spite of this rather inauspicious beginning, they met again soon thereafter at a dance, and their romance blossomed, mother vindicated.

After they married, they moved to Greenwich when her husband's father became the head of his brokerage firm, G.H Walker and Company. Prior to Greenwich, they lived for a short while on Long Island. Mary claims they eventually moved to Greenwich because of the Bush family. They built their own home in town and at the time of the interview had lived there for 55 years.

Mary also reminisces about their “baseball years.” Her husband was an owner of the Mets. While Mary initially disliked baseball, she eventually was introduced to the players and became a huge fan, even going on several road trips with them.

Mary also shares insights about living in Kennebunkport in Maine, remembering the future president when he was a child. She, as others have noted, mentions George Bush’s kindness toward others, especially toward his brother for whom he had great affection. She remembers fondly how the Bush brothers were close with their sister Nancy as well and how they played together, frequently getting into mischief. 
Bush Family Picnic
Photo: Wikipedia

In addition, she reminisces about the fabled Bush family athleticism, including that of George Bush’s mother, claiming it was Dorothy who spurred the boys’ interest in athletics. Mary also goes into George Bush’s years at Andover and then into his World War II experiences in the Navy, noting his becoming, at the time, the youngest Naval Aviator. She also recounts how nervous the family was when George was shot down and presumed to be missing—and how relieved they were to learn he had been rescued.

After coming came back from the war, the future president went to Yale. When Mary is asked about his marriage, she goes into detail about George and Barbara having been in love during the war. Their romance went back to their having first met when they were very young. Mary remembers their meeting at a dance in Rye, New York, but history has it they met at the Greenwich Country Club. She recounts how they were both very athletic, Barbara, a tomboy, and a good match for the handsome athlete, George. The young family flourished, but those early years were marred, tragically, by the loss of the their young daughter Robin to leukemia.

In addition to retelling family stories, Mary shares insights into the Bush family move to Texas to become involved in the oil business; she discusses President George H.W. Bush’s service at the United Nations and his political losses before winning the presidency. 

But what also makes the interview so engaging are Mary Walker’s insights into the more mundane problems coming with fame, such as the neighbors at Walker Point in Kennebunkport being both proud to have a president in their midst but also upset because of all the commotion and traffic caused by his visits. 
Bush Compound, Kennebunkport, Maine
Photo: Wikipedia

Much of the interview deals with the houses and family in Kennebunkport and about their lives there. All the details in this interview help to put the finishing touches on a portrait of a close and loving family, imbued with a deep sense of social responsibility to serve the country that had treated them so well.

Thanks to this interview, the accomplishments and the love inherent in this family are not lost to us.
Bush Family
Photo released by the White House
The Oral History Project interview “George Bush,” April 26,1991, can be found in the local history reference area on the first floor of the library and in the OHP office.