The Industrial National Bank Disaster

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – November, 2011

This Greenville rescue truck was one of the many pieces of fire apparatus that answered the call for help when disaster struck on the Glocester-Smithfield town line in 1962. Photo by Elwood Kelley, courtesy of John Tucker.

This Greenville rescue truck was one of the many pieces of fire apparatus that answered the call for help when disaster struck on the Glocester-Smithfield town line in 1962. Photo by Elwood Kelley, courtesy of John Tucker.

There is an underground building, more of a bunker really, that is hidden in plain sight at the four-way intersection of Snake Hill Road, West Greenville Road, and Smith Avenue, almost directly on the Smithfield-Glocester town line.  Built during the height of the Cold War in 1962, it was designed to withstand a nuclear attack.  Hundreds of people pass it every day barely aware of its existence let alone the awful tragedy connected to it, for ironically, the building did suffer the effects of an explosion during its construction; a blast that left two men dead and eleven others injured.

For those too young to remember, the Cold War was a time when the United States and the Soviet Union threatened mutual annihilation with nuclear weapons. In 1962, the Russians began building nuclear missile launch sites in Cuba, a move that led to a high-seas showdown between President Kennedy and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev in what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.  It was the arms race and threat of a nuclear holocaust which led some forward thinkers such as Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon to urge construction of protected sites for the storage of banking and financial records in the hopes that society would continue after the fallout. Thus it was that Industrial National Bank began construction of its ultimate safe-deposit box, an underground vault of re-enforced concrete located twelve miles northwest of Providence in what was then rural Rhode Island.

Construction began in April of 1962, and all was proceeding on schedule until November 23rd, when an explosion tore through the cavernous structure, blackening walls, and blowing both bodies and equipment through doorways and hatches.  For most working at the site, the shock came without warning; one moment they were at their jobs, the next moment they found themselves amidst total chaos and fighting for survival.   

Ernest Imondi, an electrician from Coventry, later related how a welder working in the main part of the building complained to him of a “knock” in the welding system.  Imondi went to an adjacent room to inspect the generator used to power the welding torch, and when he returned he saw flames climbing a wall covered with one-inch thick insulation material.  He grabbed a nearby fire extinguisher but discovered it didn’t work!  As he and others began to shout warnings of “fire”, an explosion occurred.   

Two who felt the effects of the blast were Gerard Desjarlais, and Noe Barrette.  Both were blown through an outside doorway and landed almost forty feet from where they had been standing.   Remarkably, each man suffered only minor injuries, and quickly discovered that their proximity to the doorway had been a blessing.  At least they were outside, away from the smoke and flames, and alive.  Others weren’t as lucky.

One man who was killed was 31 year-old Donald Arndt of Harrisville, who was tasked with insulating pipes in the computer room.  It was only to be a one-day job, and he was nearly finished when the explosion occurred. That morning he had told his wife he would be leaving the construction site at 4 P.M., and expected to be home by five o’clock.  The blast took place at ten minutes to four.   

Robert W. Knight of Knight’s Farm, located directly across the street, reported that he saw twenty to thirty foot flames shoot from an escape hatch atop the building, followed a few seconds later by black smoke.

Within moments of the explosion, acrid smoke permeated the building, disorienting and choking those still inside.  Men working close to the source of the flames suffered burns on various parts of their bodies, and were forced to crawl on their hands and knees to escape. 

In all, there were about thirty workmen present at the time of the accident. While most made it out, one who didn’t was 62 year-old Vincent Mulvey, an electrician from Pawtucket who found himself pinned beneath some staging.   Charles S. Wilson Jr., a civil engineer and sport-scuba diver from Providence was in the parking lot at the time of the explosion, and when he heard that a man was trapped inside, he ran to his car and retrieved his scuba tank from the trunk.  With the help of Edward Milazzo, he entered the building and located Mulvey. 

Wilson tried to teach Mulvey how to “buddy-breathe” off the scuba tank while he and Milazzo struggled to free him, but were unable to do so.  When the air in the scuba tank ran out they were forced to abandon their mission and withdraw from the building.  As it was, both Wilson and Milazzo had to be treated for smoke inhalation.    

Meanwhile, sirens were wailing at fire stations in Harmony, Greenville, Georgiaville, North Providence, and Scituate, as volunteers rushed from their homes and jobs to man the fire trucks.  Fire engines from Harmony and Greenville were the first to arrive, and Chief William Corbin of the Harmony department took command.  The danger was far from over.  A fire in an underground building of this type presented special challenges, especially with only one way in or out.  Corbin knew firefighters would have to lay hose lines and snake their way through the structure to hit the flames at their source, all the while enduring heat, smoke, and other dangers. The situation became even more acute when Corbin was informed that some workers were unaccounted for.  He had no choice but to order some men into the building to fight the flames and search for the missing, while directing others to care for the injured.

One firefighter tasked with search and rescue operations was 17 year-old Robert Aldrich of Harmony, who still lives about a mile from the disaster site.  In a recent interview he related how he responded to the scene from his home, and upon his arrival, was told that three men were trapped inside.  As he was donning his air-pack and other protective gear, one of the missing was carried from the building.  That left two men still unaccounted for.   

With disregard for his own safety, Aldrich entered the smoky structure alone, with nothing more than a hand-held floodlight connected to a portable generator by a series of extension cords daisy-chained together.

“The smoke was so thick that at first I couldn’t even tell if the light was on!” he recalled.

Aldrich maneuvered his way through the inky darkness along a series of wooden planks and ramps traveling a considerable distance into the structure.  Suddenly, through the smoke, he could hear the alarm bell of another firefighter’s air-pack sounding, indicating that the tank was low on air.  Although he could see nothing, he moved towards the sound in case his comrade needed help.  As he did so, he was bowled over in the darkness, presumably by the other firefighter who was understandably in a hurry to exit the building. As he recovered, Aldrich suddenly found himself in a dire situation, for he had dropped the floodlight which served as his only lifeline with outside world.  Without it, he couldn’t follow the cord to backtrack his way out of the building!  As he crawled about in near total blackness feeling for the floodlight cable that would lead him to safety, his own air supply began to run low!  

Aldrich remembered his training and didn’t panic.  When his air supply ran out, he removed his face mask, and began gulping air from the space between his body and his fire coat.  In this way the air was somewhat filtered, but he couldn’t go on that way for very long.  It was then he found a ramp that seemed familiar and followed it.  Luckily it proved to be the right way to salvation, or he might have become a third fatality in the incident.  As it was, he developed pneumonia due to smoke inhalation and spent five days in the hospital.  Fortunately he suffered no long-term effects, and went on to serve another twenty-eight years as a volunteer with the Harmony Fire Department. 

Another volunteer firefighter who was at the scene that day was 20 year-old John Tucker of Greenville. John remembered how he could see black smoke billowing in the distance from his home on West Greenville Road, and drove to the scene in his car. He arrived at the same time as one of the fire-rescue trucks; “I don’t remember if it was Greenville’s or Harmony’s’ he stated, ‘but I took an air-pack from the truck and began putting it on.” As he was doing so, a construction foreman ran over to him and asked to take the air-pack because he knew the layout of the building and Tucker didn’t.  The young fireman had to make a quick decision; if he went in not knowing the structure’s floor plan he might be wasting valuable time. The foreman, he reasoned, would be familiar with the building, and more importantly, where men had been working at the time of the blast.  With visibility in the building at near zero it seemed like the best course of action, and Tucker gave the man the air pack.

Tucker then focused his attention on three men with soot-blackened faces suffering from smoke inhalation.  After assisting them aboard one of the rescue trucks he accompanied them to Roger Williams Hospital.  After turning the patients over to physicians, the rescue raced back to the scene.

“Smoke was still coming from the building when we got back.’  Tucker recalled, ‘so after suiting up I entered the building with a booster line (fire hose) and life-line (rope) tied around my waist to put out a few remaining hot spots.”   

Smoke and flames weren’t the only dangers emergency workers faced that day as evidenced by the experience of another firefighter, 19 year-old Laurence Sasso Jr., who responded with Greenville’s rescue truck.  He recalled how the heavy vehicle became stuck in wet mud up to its chassis, and when the truck’s portable generators were put into service to power floodlights and exhaust fans, the truck became electrified!  One fireman who touched the truck while standing on the wet ground became frozen in place unable to let go, and Sasso was forced to give him a hard shove to save him from possible electrocution!

Thankfully that fireman didn’t suffer any serious harm, but fellow Greenville firefighter, 26 year-old Robert Broady, required hospital treatment for smoke inhalation.

The bodies of Donald Arndt, and Vincent Mulvey weren’t recovered until after the fire was out.  Arndt was found in the main storage room of the building, but there was a delay in his identification because he had forgotten his wallet at home that morning.  Mulvey was found in a separate room still pinned beneath staging.  Reverend Joseph P. Hynes of St. Phillip’s Church in Greenville administered last rites to both men.  As to the living, besides Aldrich and Broady, nine others received injuries serious enough to require medical attention.  

An investigation into the cause of the disaster was conducted by state troopers assigned to the State Fire Marshall’s Office, along with investigators from the Rhode Island Department of Labor.  Unfortunately copies of their reports were unobtainable for this article, but it was speculated at the time that the blast was caused by the ignition of flammable glue vapors produced by sprayers used to apply glue to the walls before attaching insulation.

Despite the devastating tragedy, structural damage to the building was minimal.  Construction was scheduled to be completed by January of 1963, but delays set the opening back until the following summer.  When the facility opened, it became one of the first non-government underground computer centers in the United States. The building is still in operation today, storing and protecting important records as it was designed to do, however it is no longer owned or occupied by Industrial National Bank.   

The Mystery of the Water Witch

By Jim Ignasher

Greenville’s first fire engine, the Water Witch, mysteriously vanished without a trace. Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt

Greenville’s first fire engine, the Water Witch, mysteriously vanished without a trace. Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt

This is the tale of Greenville’s first fire engine known as the Water Witch, and its unexplained disappearance during World War II.  Rumors and speculation surround the mystery.  Some have claimed she was lost to a scrap drive during the war, while others, in a twist of irony, believe she was destroyed in a barn fire.  Still others have ventured she was sold to a private collector.  And some believe she is still around, hidden away in a neighboring town. Whatever the case, those who know her true fate have refused to tell, while others have continued to search.  Perhaps someone reading this can help solve the mystery.    

It all began with a thunderstorm that swept through Greenville on the night of June 20, 1870, during which lightning set fire to Whipple’s Wheelwright Shop in the heart of the village.   Volunteers formed a bucket brigade, but the flames spread quickly, and before long an adjacent building owned by Barnes & Sprague was also ablaze.  A newspaper report of the incident stated that a man named Martin was badly injured when he fell from a ladder while helping to remove items of value before the flames could consume them.  Both buildings were a complete loss, and only one was partially insured.

Besides being a blow to Greenville’s economy, the blaze made it clear that the village needed something better than bucket brigades in the way of fire protection.  Over the next few days, Martin Mann of Greenville began soliciting donations to purchase a fire engine.  At a special meeting held in the Greenville Baptist Church he announced that he had collected pledges of $366.00 thus far, and urged others to contribute.  Mann had also taken it upon himself to locate fire engines that might be for sale, and after some discussion it was decided that a hand-tub engine belonging to the Dexter Hose Company of Pawtucket would be best suited to the needs of the village.

The fire engine was purchased for $475.00, with additional money spent on hose lines.  It arrived in Greenville on July 4th amidst much fanfare which included a parade, a brass band, and refreshments served on the common. The engine was dubbed the Water Witch, although it’s unclear at this time weather the name was given by those of the Dexter Hose Company, or by the citizens of Greenville. 

The Water Witch was a “hand-tub” that required a team of strong men to operate – at least five men on each side who would operate long pump handles to draw water from a pond or cistern, while other firemen directed hose streams at the flames.  She would arrive at a fire being pulled by a team of horses or men with ropes.  Such apparatus were already obsolete by 1870 with the advent of steam powered fire engines, but still a great improvement over bucket brigades.

It could be said that the arrival of the Water Witch was the beginning of Smithfield’s fire department as we know it today, for it was the first fire engine in what is now Smithfield after the town was divided in 1871.

Historical Society of Smithfield photo

Historical Society of Smithfield photo

Greenville’s fledgling fire company was called “The Rescue Fire Engine Company”, and Andrew B. Whipple was elected the first fire chief. Martin Mann, whose efforts were responsible for obtaining the Water Witch, was elected First Assistant Forman, a title known today as Deputy Chief. 

The Water Witch was first housed in a barn owned by Mrs. Abby Evans, but in 1885 it was re-located to the basement of the National Exchange Bank of Greenville.  This sturdy brick building still stands on Putnam Pike at the intersection of Smith Avenue.   

Thanks to the Water Witch and the men of the Rescue Fire Engine Company, some notable landmarks were saved.  Among them were the Resolved Waterman Tavern, and the Greenville Baptist Church, both of which were hit by lightning, as well as several “historic” homes that still remain standing. The Water Witch served Greenville for many years until motorized fire engines made even “steamers” obsolete. 

Firefighters are a traditional lot, proud of their history, and dedicated to preserving it.  It is for this reason that the men of Greenville decided to keep the historic Water Witch for parades and special functions. 

During the 1920s and ‘30s the Greenville Fire Company (as it came to be called.) began to acquire motor driven fire engines and quickly outgrew their fire station under the bank.  By 1939 the organization had moved into a new fire station on Putnam Pike which is still in use today. Oral history of the Greenville Fire Company states that by the late 1930s storage space for the Water Witch became a concern, but the problem seemed to be solved when members of the Chepachet Fire Company asked to use the vintage fire engine in Glocester’s annual Ancients and Horribles Parade.  The engine was loaned on the condition that Chepachet store it for the time being.  Then the United States was drawn into World War II and the young men of both communities left to serve their country.  It wasn’t until after the war that men from Greenville went to retrieve the Water Witch only to be told that it had disappeared, and nobody seemed to know what happened to it.   

Inquiries were made, but to no avail.  Some said the old fire engine had been discarded to a scrap drive during the war, but it seemed unlikely that Chepachet’s firefighters would have allowed the destruction of such a valuable and historic antique.  For the next twenty-plus years the fate of the Water Witch remained a bone of contention between the two towns. 

Greenville Fire Company - Circa 1900. Priscilla Holt photo

Greenville Fire Company – Circa 1900. Priscilla Holt photo

In 1970, as the Greenville Fire Company made preparations to celebrate its 100th Anniversary, a renewed effort was made to recover the long lost Water Witch.  Information was received from a Chepachet resident that she was hidden in a barn at a Glocester cemetery, and men from Greenville went to investigate.

At first the caretaker reportedly refused to allow anyone to look inside, but later, when permission was granted, all that was found was an old horse-drawn hearse. 

The matter was never resolved, and in later years a rumor circulated that the Witch had been stored in the barn of a “collector”, but the barn had reportedly burned down and the old gal was lost at that time. The exact location and date of this fire is unknown.  Another story surfaced that she was sold to a collector in Coventry who later donated her to a museum, but this was never verified.  

The mystery was brought to light again in a 1987 Providence Journal article titled; “Fire Officials In Two Towns Disagree About Who Owned A Lost Antique Fire Truck”.  According to the article, both Chepachet and Greenville were claiming ownership of the missing fire engine!  Members of the Chepachet Fire Department at that time had been told that it was Greenville firemen who had borrowed the engine from their station and never brought it back, however the Chepachet fire captain who spoke with the reporter acknowledged that he didn’t know if the story was true or not.

The article went on to point out that neither town had records to prove ownership which would seem to leave the matter in legal limbo should the Water Witch ever be found. However, research has uncovered information that seems to support Greenville’s claim.  Newspaper articles from the Woonsocket Patriot, report of the lightning strike to Whipple’s Wheelwright Shop in Greenville, the subsequent purchase of a fire engine, and the formation of “The Rescue Fire Engine Company”.   

Additionally, publisher and historian Laurence J. Sasso Jr. researched and later wrote about the history of the Greenville Fire Company in a 100th anniversary supplement published in The Observer on October 1, 1970.  His extensive article, which spanned twelve pages, included information about the Water Witch that was gleaned from original hand-written Greenville Fire Company records.  

Furthermore, there are at least three different vintage photographs known to exist depicting Greenville firemen posing with the Water Witch in front of the old National Exchange Bank of Greenville.  All three images pre-date World War II. 

Ownership aside, the original question still remains; what happened to the Water Witch?   In recent years the rumors have quieted to a whisper as those with first-hand, and even second-hand knowledge fade away. There are those who believe the Water Witch still exists, perhaps hidden away in a secret location known only to a select few, and it is for this reason that they continue the search. 

The last active search for the missing antique fire engine took place in 2006 when a delegation of aging Greenville volunteers once again tried to solve the riddle.  Unfortunately they were unsuccessful, and while some have since passed away, the mystery lives on.

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