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Mrs. Helen Joy Lee was enjoying a nice day at her cottage on Fort Road. She, like all of the others caught by the storm, had no idea that a hurricane was bearing down on them. Enjoying the late September weather, she went for a swim at noon and gave her dog a bath. At 3:30 p.m. the wind started blowing with a vengeance. A window broke and a part of the roof blew off. Mrs. Lee went out on the back porch with her dog and put her kitten in her coat pocket. The wind caught her coat and the kitten sailed into the air. The door crashed closed behind her and she couldn’t open it. She sat with the dog waiting to see what would happen next.
We pick up Mrs. Lee’s narrative here: “My watch read 4:30 when a wave washed into my lap and knocked the porch down. Something broke my left arm and the dog and I were washed into the bay as if on a roller coaster, all in ten seconds. I reached the dog and undid her leash and she floated off on a door and so to dog heaven. I grabbed a fallen pole and hung on with one arm and watched a woman several houses away go into the bay.”
Mrs. Lee struggled through floating debris being hurled by the waves and was hit in the head many times. A large piece of wood hit her in the face and later, at the hospital, a splinter of wood was removed from the bridge of her nose.
“When I was in the trough of the waves I could look up and see wreckage being blown off the wave tops. I tried to ward things off with the one arm. A rooftop turned up and I rode it for quite a while. Then a mattress came by, and it was moving faster, so I got on that. It was getting gray and I dimly saw some treetops.”
Mrs. Lee transferred to a half-sunken boat floating by and eventually landed in a treetop. When the water receded she climbed down. After the wind died she walked for over an hour to Mr. Greenwood’s house. He took her to the Westerly Hospital where she discovered she had a severely dislocated elbow, purple from the wrist to the shoulder. Twenty five thorns were taken out of her feet, and she was suffering, according to the hospital report, abrasions, contusions, and exposure. She’d had a remarkable escape.
Another Fort Road tragedy was the loss of four people from the Ronald M. Byrnes family of New York. As the storm got worse they left their cottage, about halfway out Fort Road, to take refuge in what they hoped would be a safer structure. This was not to be, Mrs. Byrnes cut an artery breaking through a glass door. Mr. Byrnes applied a tourniquet but she and her two daughters, Barbara age 20, and Betty 17, were all lost when the house crashed down upon them. Mr. Byrnes was thrown into the bay, barely conscious, and was carried across the bay on the wreckage to Osbrook Point. One of the maids from the Byrnes household, Miss Irma Nurmi, survived while another servant, Mrs. Uisimaki, was drowned.
Eleven other people from Fort Road met their deaths during the storm and their bodies were found in the wreckage strewn across the shores of the bay. Mr. Roy Rainey of New York who occupied the Pohl cottage, the furthest one out by the old Fort, and his servant Miss Martha Ribecki, were drowned but two guests, Miss Dorothy Gibson and Miss Mary Glendening crossed the bay safely and were taken to the Westerly Hospital.
Mrs. Cyril V. Moore was also caught by the storm. She had just returned to her cottage on Fort Road with her 5-year-old daughter Mary. Her maid Margaret, and two friends, Violet Cottrell, and Denise O’Brien, were also there. Mrs. Moore, Denise O’Brien, and Mrs. Cottrell all wrote accounts of the storm which painted a vivid picture of their experiences.
Furious wind and waves began to batter the house. The windows broke and water poured into the house.
We pick up Mrs. Moore’s narrative here: “All of a sudden I heard a terrific roaring noise and saw the southwest corner of the house come away and we were standing in water up to our necks. I picked up Mary and we all joined hands and made our way through the mad surge of water around the house to the back door. The wind and waves were something beyond description; the water was warm and a dirty gray.”
Making their way up the kitchen stairs, to their dismay, the door was locked and they were trapped on the stairs. A wave hit and the staircase broke washing Denise and Violet away.
“The last I saw of Vio and Denise was the soles of their shoes being carried along as the house seemed to settle. It was a desperate moment. Another wave came and I felt the house give.”
The next thing they knew they were out in the bay. Mrs. Moore was holding onto Mary and the maid was holding onto them. A piece of roof floated by and they climbed on.
“The waves were terribly high and why we weren’t killed by flying debris no one will ever know.”
Eventually they spotted the tops of trees. A wave hit and their roof raft split in two spilling them into the water. Mrs. Moore desperately held onto Mary.
“Several times I thought I’d lost her. I went down once and really thought I was done for but somehow we managed to struggle to dry land.”
Mrs. Cottrell’s account is both detailed and riveting.
“I went to Cyril Moore’s house on the Fort Road. The wind at that time was blowing hard but we had no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary. After a while things began to happen very fast. The steps leading to the beach were swept lose. Suddenly the doors from the porch flew open and water flooded the living room. By this time the sea was coming across the dunes and we were very uneasy.”
They went down to the garage and tried to get the car out but the water was rising too fast. A great wave came over them almost drowning little Mary Moore and Mrs. Cottrell. Telephone poles started falling and they retreated. Holding hands they made their way around the corner of the house and up the back stairway leading to the kitchen but the kitchen door was locked. They watched the Watt’s house vanish into the sea.
“It seemed to me in those long moments that we were standing on the brink of eternity and that each one of us had determined to be calm and courageous in the face of what seemed certain death.
Suddenly there was a grinding roar as the stairs caved in plunging Mrs. Cottrell and Miss O’Brien into the water.
“We were engulfed in a perfect inferno of white water. My only conscious thought was to keep my head above water. In that moment a mattress passed us and we grabbed it and clung on to it. We looked back and could not see the Moore family and our hearts sank. We had barely got clear of the house when there was an appalling cracking noise; the most horrifying I’ve ever heard. The house split squarely down the middle, toppled and thundered into the water. It was so awful. I think it stunned us. I remember saying, ‘God forgive us.’ I asked Denise if she thought we could have reached the Moores in time. We never thought we would see them alive again.”
After many trials and tribulations Mrs. Moore, her maid Margaret, and her daughter Mary were reunited with Miss O’Brien and Mrs. Cottrell. To everyone’s astonishment, they had survived. They all thought the others had perished. A few days after the hurricane Mrs. Moore’s brother was picking through the wreckage of the Moore cottage. He found the ship’s clock. It had stopped at 5:14 p.m.
What became known as the Fort Road tragedy claimed 15 lives that fateful day while 27 others miraculously survived. All who experienced the storm and lived through it would never forget it. In the letter, she wrote to her brother Catherine Moore ended it with:
“I sometimes feel that we have had a preview of the end of the world. For some, it was the end. It might easily have been we. We experienced every sensation except that of actually leaving this world, but that was not in the pattern of our lives. We who have been through this hurricane, I’m sure, have gained a deeper, more complete outlook on life than we could have ever gained otherwise. Lots of love, Catherine.”