The events of January 4, 1983 and the months that followed, violently overturned the lives of four men, galvanized the state into passing a law to prevent similar tragedies, united area towns and cities in an outpouring of support, and changed the way at least one city would fight fires.
The United Organics Building
The United Organics facility, situated at 387 Ludlow Street, was part of a complex comprising 17 similar structures. This particular building was a two-story, fire-resistant structure built in 1907 with approximate dimensions of 100′ x 70′. It boasted one-foot-thick brick walls, with intersecting 12” brick partitions that delineated four distinct rooms on the first floor within its rectangular layout.
The second floor was composed of an 8” slab featuring 2”x6” planks and plywood, covering holes or opening in the floor where necessary.
The western façade of the structure, accessible through the alleyway off Ludlow Street, served as the primary entrance (“A-side”). This elevation featured two doors. One was a 4-foot door, centered within a 9’9″ aperture and secured using plywood mounted on 2 x 4 studs. Additionally, a double swinging door with a 3-foot opening was positioned further down the alley to the south.
The northern wall (“B-side”) presented a solid brick surface devoid of any openings.
Moving to the eastern side (“C-side”), two doors were evident – a set of double swinging doors and a garage door housing a built-in man door. A “man door” is a smaller, pedestrian-sized entryway designed for human passage, distinct from larger entrances intended for vehicles or equipment. These doors were strategically located on the southwest and southeast halves of the wall. This eastern boundary ran alongside the east branch (canal) of the Stamford harbor.
On the southern face (“D-side”), two wooden garage doors were noticeable, each equipped with an attached “man door.”
The ground-floor space in the corner shared by the A and B sides (room 1) encompassed a mixing room featuring three vats. One of these vats extended vertically through to the second floor, spanning approximately 15 feet in width and 30 feet in length.
Towards the rear of the first floor was an area that served as a waiting and packing room. The upper level of this room functioned as a laboratory, featuring a wooden floor measuring approximately 15 feet in width by 30 feet in length. This floor was constructed using 2 x 6 planks and was overlaid with 3/8 inch plywood.
The roof was specially designed to absorb any pressure generated by an explosion
Notably, the building lacked fire alarms, sprinkler systems, standpipes, and heat or smoke detection systems. It was protected by Sonitrol for security purposes as the building was unoccupied at night. The building did contain BC and ABC fire extinguishers, strategically positioned throughout the premises.
United Organics, the company in operation, had occupied this location for twenty-six years. Before their tenure, the structure had served various purposes, including its use as an explosive manufacturing plant.
Anatomy of a Disaster…. A Chronological Look
For the purpose of this article, we’ll employ the current unit designations. Instead of “2 Engine,” we will refer to it as “Engine 2,” and for “1 Truck,” it will be “Truck 1.”
The initial response for the Box Assignment was:
- Engine 2:
- Truck 2: Ed Nemcheck ond Jeff Koproski xc
- Deputy Chief / Unit 2: Acting Deputy Chief Gerry LaBlanc; FF Jim Ferguson
- Squad 1: Acting Captain Walt Finch, Driver FF Charlie Lord;????;????
- Mini-Pumper 16: Acting Lt Joe Avalos; Driver FF Don Mitchell; FF Scott Gill; ????
Please note that Police and Fire units operate on separate radio systems and can’t directly communicate. Their dispatchers are situated in distinct buildings and communicate via a special phone. The events’ initial details, as recorded in official records, are provided below:
4:30 PM on Monday, January 3
Dr. Lieberman and the staff conclude operations at the United Organics Chemical plant located at 387 Ludlow Street. He later stated that the building closure followed the usual routine.
Around 1 AM on Tuesday, January 4, 1983
Stamford, CT experiences a cold temperature of 30 degrees, with the forecast predicting it to drop to around 18 degrees by 8 AM. There’s no projected precipitation.
1:25 AM on January 4, 1983
Stamford Police Officer Tony Marion, driving Car 33, patrols the Southend of Stamford. He observes smoke emerging from an alley at the east end of Ludlow Street, an industrial and warehouse area.
Officer Marion (SPD Car 33) informs the Police dispatcher about a possible fire and that he intends to investigate further.
Officer Marion (SPD Car 33) reports a confirmed active fire at the end of Ludlow Street, near #390.
The Police Dispatcher verifies the “working” structure fire with Officer Marion (SPD Car 33), who confirms the situation.
Around 1:32 AM
The fire alarm telegraph box system triggers alarms in all Stamford Fire Stations for box 147. The dispatched units include Squad 1, Mini-Attack 16, Unit 2, Engine 2, and Truck 2.
Officer Marion (SPD Car 33) instructs other police units to explore the complex for occupancy. He suggests that the building may be a Chemical plant. Simultaneously, Sonitrol reports an alarm at 387 Ludlow Street, United Organics. The address is confirmed.
Base 200 (Stamford Fire Dispatch) announces box 147 over the 154.120 MHz Radio System. All units are informed that the Police are at the scene and have confirmed a working fire.
Deputy Chief Unit 2 (Acting Deputy Chief Gerry Leblanc and DC Aide Jim Ferguson) acknowledges the assignment and responds.
One of the Police Officers broadcasts to all units on the police radio, urging them to “stay back” due to the presence of a chemical-laden warehouse.
Engine 2 informs Base 200 of their arrival on the scene, describing a “heavy smoke condition.” A pre-fire plan called for the first due engine (E2) and truck (T2) to set up master streams as part of a defensive operation. So E2 and T2 went to work enacting the preplan.
The Police Dispatcher notifies Officer Marion (SPD Car 33) that the building owner, Dr Lieberman, has been informed and is on his way.
Around 1:35 AM
Station 1 crews arrived at the scene, including Squad 1, the Mini-pumper, Truck 1, and the Deputy Chief. Upon arrival, Police Officer Marion promptly engaged in conversation with DC Aide Ferguson, conveying the presence of chemicals stored within the building. Responding, DC Aide Ferguson acknowledged Officer Marion’s information, noting their prior visit just days before, during which they were made aware of the stored contents. Together, Ferguson and Finch recollected the sight of dark smoke billowing from various points—doors, windows, and crevices—of the structure, with no visible flames from the exterior. Transitioning to the alley adjacent to the street, the two individuals advanced toward a door resembling an overhead garage entry, positioned roughly halfway along the building’s side. Here, they initiated a fire assessment. They both recognized the door’s slide bolt, securely fastened, yet discovered the door slightly ajar, approximately 3 to 4 inches. Through this narrow opening, they managed to perceive a reddish glow and hear crackling sounds, though flames remained elusive to their sight.
A Police Officer reports that the west wind is blowing smoke towards Shippan.
An unknown source on the fire radio inquires, “Walt, do ya have a hydrant down there?” A voice excitedly responds, “Yah, they’re hooked in.”
Around 1:38 AM
A gigantic explosion occurred without warning “enveloping the entire building in a fireball” and lifting the roof of the building off its foundation.
An enthusiastic voice on the radio urgently requests more than one ambulance, emphasizing the need for immediate response. The dispatcher acknowledges the message. “Have the ambulance respond Base 200… This is #2 Engine, we need more than one ambulance to respond. Right away, right away!”
Car 48 radios, “The building just went up.”
Engine 2 reiterates the request for multiple ambulances and seeks confirmation of receipt. ”Did you receive the message? More than one ambulance?”
Base 200 dispatches Glenbrook Fire Department Ambulance for numerous injuries.
A Police Officer on scene calls for ambulance assistance and later updates to request all available ambulances due to the fire department’s need. ”Call the Fire Department. Send an ambulance – 2 of them!” He shortly thereafter updated his request… “The Fire Department is requesting all the ambulances you can find.”
Around 1:40 AM
Deputy Fire Marshal Fred E. Johnson is informed of the incident and heads to the scene.
Unit 2 attempts to contact base 200 but receives no response. Captain Conklin of Engine 2 is presumed to have assumed command. Two victims, Deputy Chief Gerry laBlanc and his aide, Jim Ferguson, are later identified as among the casualties.
Base 200 is instructed to transmit a second alarm and send a Deputy Chief due to the Chief’s injury and several other casualties. “Base 200, transmit a 2nd Alarm. We need a Deputy Chief. The Chief is injured. We have several men injured. We need more than one ambulance.”
A Police Officer proposes using squad cars for transportation and indicates power outage. Car 33 is en route to Stamford Hospital with the injured. ”Get squad cars down here for transportation. We’re going to use our cars to get these guys to the hospitals.”… “Got power outage down here too. Car 33 going to Stamford Hospital. Code 3. Advise the hospital of the situation down here.”
Unit 36 and Unit 55 are dispatched by Base 200 to the scene.
Acting Lieutenant Joe Avalos, the Mini-Attack’s officer that night, advises hospitals to prepare for mass casualties.
An unidentified firefighter urges Base 200 to bring HELCO (power company) to the scene.
Unit 99 is dispatched to the scene by Base 200.
SPD Car 11 queries the number of ambulances en route, and the dispatcher confirms three are coming.
“Base 200, this is Engine 2, I have assumed Command. Have the 2nd Alarm engine company respond through the other end of complex”… “Base 200 to Unit 2. Do you need the police boat to put water on the fire from the canal?”… “Unit 2 to base 200”. Transmit a third alarm”
Base 200 asks if the police boat is needed for water application from the canal. No reply is documented.
Around 1:45 AM
Chief Fire Marshal Carmine Speranza is notified and heads to the hospital.
SPD Car 16 asks police dispatch to have HELCO shut off power to the end of Ludlow St.
Stamford Fire Department’s Chief arrives at the scene.
Unit 16 contacts base 200 regarding notification to the power company.
Around 2:00 AM
Deputy Fire Marshal Fred E. Johnson arrives at the scene, interacts with Fire Chief Joe Vitti, and initiates contact with the building owner to ascertain the chemicals stored within.
Deputy 3 notifies base 200 to inform hospitals about injuries involving acrylonitrile and/or toluene exposure.
Fire Marshal Carmine Speranza reaches Stamford Hospital and records initial statements from injured firefighters, recognizing them by their uniforms and gear.
The fire was brought under control at 3:30 AM, but the fire department continued to pour foam onto what was left of the brick building for some time afterwards.
The fire was still smoldering later that morning. Police cordoned off the area because of the danger of inhalation of toxic fumes.
Map by Kevin Tappe, previously published in Firehouse Magazine
In a harrowing and sudden turn of events, the chemical processing facility was struck by a devastating explosion, leading to a fiery aftermath that left its mark on four Stamford Firefighters and the City of Stamford. The incident unfolded with startling rapidity, occurring just nine minutes after the initial fire alarm was raised by SFD Officer Marion. The explosion’s sheer violence was evident in the way it lifted the building’s roof by a staggering nine inches while sending shards of window glass hurtling in all directions.
The impact of the blast was felt far and wide, evidenced by the rear door of the facility being propelled across the east branch of the harbor, landing just a mere 20 feet from the American Cyanamid building. This explosion also unleashed chunks of unidentified debris, scattering them indiscriminately across the vicinity. The fireball engulfed four firefighters who were assessing their plan of attack for handling the fire. The sheer force ripped helmets off two firefighters who were standing nearby, underscoring the intensity of the incident.
The shockwave generated by the explosion reverberated throughout Stamford, reaching even the homes miles away from the epicenter. The magnitude of the disaster was further illustrated by the swift response it triggered: at 1:40 AM, a Mass Casualty incident was declared, prompting ambulances and rescue teams from multiple towns to rush to the scene. Fears mounted that others could also be trapped or injured, highlighting the urgency of the situation.
In the aftermath, the injured firefighters were swiftly attended to, with two being transported to the Emergency Room by the Fire Department Ambulance and the remaining two taken by Police Cars. Amid the chaos, Captain Conklin of Engine 2 took charge of the scene after Acting Deputy Chief LaBlanc sustained injuries. His decisive actions were evident as he called for escalating alarm levels and initiated an aggressive defensive fire attack.
The blaze that erupted reached alarming heights, with flames shooting more than 30 feet into the air. The resultant damage was extensive, leading to power outages for over 840 residences due to the destruction of power lines. As the emergency unfolded, a united front was established, with police, firefighters, and rescue teams converging along Canal Street to address the escalating crisis.
Even miles away, the force of the explosion was felt; Coast Guardsmen stationed at Eaton’s Neck reported witnessing the event from their location, prompting them to set sail across the sound to offer assistance. Their response proved invaluable, as the Coast Guard boat started dousing the burning structure from the canal. This action played a crucial role in containing the fire and potentially saved firefighters from entering the perilous building.
Amid the chaos, concerns about the chemicals involved in the explosion arose. The Connecticut Poison Center in Farmington highlighted the potential dangers posed by one of the chemicals, acrylonitrile, an explosive and flammable solvent that could prove fatal if inhaled in concentrated amounts.
The catastrophic incident unfolded in a manner that caught the attention of media outlets. Reporters from various platforms were kept at a safe distance, 400 yards from the unfolding inferno. As the fire raged on, enveloping the structure in the frigid night, an acrid smell descended upon the Southend area, extending even into Long Island Sound. Vehicles in the vicinity bore the residue of the disaster, covered by a thin layer of an unknown substance.
The battle to quell the flames persisted for several days, as firefighters and emergency crews worked tirelessly to fully extinguish the remnants of the blaze. The incident stands as a stark reminder of the unpredictable nature of industrial disasters and the critical importance of swift and coordinated responses to protect both life and property.
The catastrophic explosion at the chemical processing facility ushered in a thorough investigation spearheaded by Chief Fire Marshal Carmine Speranza. Even before the smoldering embers were fully extinguished, the wheels of the investigation were set in motion, seeking to unearth the intricate series of events that had led to the devastating incident.
One of the first notable finds in Chief Fire Marshal Speranza investigation was the discovery of a small pocket of flame approximately 30 inches from the door that had been blown off in the alleyway during the explosion’s initial force. This fire was burning seemingly independent of any object. FM Speranza, along with Firefighters James Harrington and Buck Leary, would later find the remains of a damaged portable radio, a firefighter’s coat, a watch, a pen, and a waistline with a hook in the alley where the fireball engulfed the Firefighters.
The chaotic scene revealed more evidence as Firefighter Nemcheck from Company #2 recounted that a dozen to twenty bricks had been dislodged from the building, a consequence of the explosive shockwaves. Firefighter Art Cronkright provided a crucial firsthand account, detailing the sight of heavy light gray smoke emanating from the building upon their arrival. He further described the moment of the major explosion, recalling the chilling image of a man fleeing the entrance while engulfed in flames.
Among those assisting in the comprehensive investigation were prominent agencies like The Connecticut State Police Fire Marshal Division, The Department of Environmental Protection, and the National Fire Protection Association. This collaborative effort emphasized the complexity and gravity of the incident, spurring a multi-faceted inquiry into the roots of the catastrophe.
The extensive damage wreaked by the fire and subsequent explosions posed significant challenges for investigators. The mission to determine the origin and cause of the blaze was further complicated by the ruins left in the wake of the disaster.
The meticulous investigation extended for 15 days, encompassing an intricate examination of the facility’s contents and structure. An astonishing revelation emerged from this probing process: the building harbored over 500 chemical residues, a complex and potentially hazardous environment that added to the challenge of untangling the event’s genesis.
Chief Speranza’s diligent efforts eventually unveiled a critical piece of the puzzle. The fire’s likely inception was traced back to a chemical chain reaction within a second-floor lab. This cascade of events led to a dangerous buildup of heat and pressure, culminating in a violent explosion that ignited nearby chemical drums.
As the layers of the investigation were peeled away, it became evident that the incident was not characterized by a single explosion, but rather three distinct blasts. The second explosion, the most catastrophic of the trio, inflicted the injuries upon the four Stamford firefighters. It was this blast that appeared to have exposed the responders to a flaming chemical spray, with signs pointing to polymerized Acrylonitrile (Vinyl Cyanide) as a possible culprit. Other commonly used chemicals, including Benzene, Toluene, and Acrylic Acid, were also identified as components in the facility.
The chilling toll of the incident was vividly encapsulated by the state of the firefighters’ gear. Their polycarbonate helmets had melted, and their coats had been burned through, one reduced to mere ashes, leaving only metal buckles behind. The second-floor lab bore the brunt of the damage, with the wooden floor entirely consumed by the flames, and the structural integrity compromised with bent I-beams.
As the investigation unfolded, the true extent of the devastation became apparent, unraveling a web of complex events that led to the tragic explosion. The incident served as a stark reminder of the inherent dangers within chemical processing and the critical role of meticulous investigation in piecing together the puzzle of industrial disasters.
The Fire Was Out, But the Struggles of Four Firefighters Had Just Begun
The aftermath of the explosion marked the beginning of a challenging journey for the four valiant firefighters who had borne the brunt of the blast’s fury. A mere 19 hours after the incident, a poignant scene unfolded at Saint Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church on Newfield Avenue, as over 400 police officers, fellow firefighters, family members, and friends gathered to offer their prayers and support for the injured heroes. The unity of purpose extended beyond the church walls, as off-duty personnel rallied at the hospital, generously offering blood donations to aid their comrades.
The spirit of community solidarity echoed through Stamford, with residents coming together to organize fundraisers aimed at easing the burdens on the families of the injured firefighters. A remarkable display of compassion and generosity was witnessed during a Red Cross Blood Drive, jointly sponsored by the Police and Fire Department, which far exceeded its initial goal of 90 pints, underscoring the town’s unwavering commitment to those who risked their lives to protect it.
As the dust settled, the extent of the firefighters’ injuries came into focus. John Ferguson, Walter Finch, and Jerry LeBlanc, three of the burned firefighters, underwent evaluation at Stamford Hospital before being transferred to the specialized burn unit at Westchester, N.Y., Community Medical Center. Meanwhile, the fourth firefighter, Scott Gill, was admitted to Stamford Hospital. The physical toll was immense, with the injuries sustained in the explosion rendering some of them virtually unrecognizable.
The identities of the four brave individuals who bore the impact of the explosion were revealed: Scott Gillill, James Ferguson, Gerald LeBlanc, and Walter Finch. While the fire itself had been extinguished, the challenges these firefighters faced were only just beginning, as they embarked on a journey of recovery and healing, buoyed by the unwavering support of their community and the indomitable spirit of their fellow first responders.
Another 43 firefighters, police officers, and ambulance employees were examined for possible inhalation of toluene and acrylonitrile — two solvents involved in the blaze — and were released.
Acting Captain Walter E Finch, Jr
In the annals of Stamford’s history, one name stands out with resounding reverence and admiration—Firefighter Walter E. Finch Jr. Born on September 20, 1941, in Stamford, CT, Walter embodied the essence of courage, dedication, and unwavering service. His journey through life was a testament to his character, resilience, and the indelible mark he left on his community.
Walter’s roots were deeply embedded in his hometown, where he was the son of Frances T. Finch of Norwalk and the late Walter E. Finch Sr. His journey was enriched by love, as he married his beloved Ann Marie (Cha) Tuccinardi. Together, they nurtured a family of five children, creating a legacy of unity, strength, and shared purpose.
Before joining the ranks of Stamford’s bravest, Walter had already demonstrated his dedication to service as a submarine serviceman in the US Navy. His commitment to safeguarding lives extended seamlessly into his role as a firefighter. But Walter wasn’t defined merely by his uniform; he was a man of diverse passions and interests. An avid walker, a master solver of crossword puzzles, and, above all, a devoted family man, Walter found solace and joy in the simple pleasures of life.
Tragedy struck Walter on that fateful day of the explosion, where he exemplified the very essence of bravery. Fire Marshal Speranza recalled the extent of Walter’s injuries, so severe that recognition only came when Walter began to speak. A testament to their camaraderie, Walter had once stood as the best man at Speranza’s wedding, a symbol of the deep bonds forged among firefighters. His then-girlfriend also didn’t recognize him. Anne-Marie Tuccinardi said, “I started crying and screaming.”
Walter’s injuries were profound, bearing the weight of burns over 40% of his body, including 10% in the form of excruciating third-degree burns. The journey of healing took him to the Westchester County Medical Center burn unit, where he faced the arduous path of recovery with a resilience that inspired all who knew him. Walter later recalled… ““You knew when the nurses were getting closer to you at bandage changing time,” he said. “I would hear somebody screaming, and I knew they were going through their changes and I hear the next guy and I knew they were getting closer.” The presence of Anne-Marie Tuccinardi, offered some solace amid the physical and emotional challenges he confronted.
Walt Finch had to contend with scar formation so thick on his hands that he had to have the palm of his right hand sliced, so his thumb wouldn’t contract and make his hand useless. The joints in his little fingers were immobile. He had to wear a splint on his right hand to keep it stretched.
Even amidst his tribulations, Walter’s spirit remained unbroken. He shared poignant memories of camaraderie with fellow firefighter Jim Ferguson, finding solace and warmth in each other’s company even in the confines of the hospital. Through the struggles of treatment, Walter’s humor and strength shone bright, illuminating the darkest moments.
Walter’s legacy extended beyond the fire service. In March of 1989, he transitioned to becoming a Public Safety Dispatcher for 911 Emergency Services of Stamford—a role that suited his uncanny ability to anticipate needs and maintain an air of calm. His distinctive voice and steadfast professionalism made him a respected figure across the airwaves, earning him the endearing nickname “God” among colleagues.
Yet, Walter’s impact extended far beyond his professional accomplishments. His wit, kindness, humility, and unfailing positivity left an indelible impression on all who crossed his path. His presence could light up any room, a testament to the brightness he brought to every situation.
The legacy of Walter E. Finch Jr. was tragically cut short on January 3, 2010, when he succumbed to Pancreatic Cancer at the age of 68. But his memory lives on, immortalized in the hearts of those he touched and through the recognition bestowed upon him. In 2019, Walter E. Finch Jr. was added to the International Association of Firefighters Fallen Firefighter Memorial—an acknowledgment of his heroic sacrifice, his unwavering dedication, and his enduring impact on Stamford and its residents.
Acting Deputy Chief Gerald LaBlanc
A lifelong resident of Stamford, Gerald’s legacy is etched in his unwavering dedication to his community, a legacy that endured even in the face of the gravest challenges.
Born on November 17, 1929, in Stamford, CT, to the late Dennis and Dolores LeBlanc, Gerald embodied the essence of a devoted local, whose commitment was matched only by his sense of duty. He shared his journey with Delores Boshka, his beloved wife, and together they nurtured a family that included one daughter.
Gerald’s unwavering commitment was never more evident than on the day of the explosion. At 53 years old, he found himself on the frontlines, embodying the essence of a true leader. The impact of the blast hurled him to the ground, leaving his hands and face marred by the flames’ searing touch. Undeterred by his injuries, Gerry rose to his feet, determined to aid his comrades in their moment of crisis.
He got up and saw Jim Ferguson lying on the ground, stuck under a heavy object. Gerry wanted to throw his heavy firefighting coat over him to put out the fire that was creeping over him, but he was helpless – he had also broken his shoulder near the joint.
“My left hand had something all over it, and the (portable) radio was is in it, but my fingers wouldn’t open,” Gerry said. As he recounted the harrowing moments, Gerald’s courage shone through in his words. He vividly remembered the scene: “I just stood there until he (Ferguson) was able to get loose and then we both ran. I remember as we were running a couple of more explosions occurred. I could hear bricks falling. I could see power lines coming down.” These words encapsulated the chaos, the bravery, and the determination that characterized that pivotal moment.
The road to recovery was arduous and fraught with challenges. Under the care of Dr. Roger Salisbury, Director of the Westchester County Medical Center Burn Unit, and Dr. Jane Petra, Gerald and the others endured more than 20 operations. The journey was marked by moments of resilience and vulnerability, where the distinction between day and night blurred under the weight of his care.
Gerry and Walt both spent five weeks at the burn center. The first three months were the worst said Dolores Leblanc, wife of Gerry. It seemed as though she lived in the laundry room. Her husband’s dressings had to be changed twice a day on one side and sheets had to be changed daily until the wound healed later in March.
“I remember early in the spring, people from the fire department came to my house. They helped. They cleaned up my yard. They cut my grass until this day. They drive us to therapy” Gerry said. “I really believe there is a God” Gerry said. “All those prayers, all that extra medical and the community help are what got us out of this real mess”.
Gerald’s injuries were profound, requiring a series of surgeries to address the damage inflicted. The hands that had once guided and protected were now the focus of intricate procedures, including grafts and reconstructions. The shoulder injury, a painful reminder of the explosion’s force, required a rod to be inserted for stabilization. Through each procedure, Gerald exhibited an unwavering spirit, a determination to heal and rebuild.
In the midst of the challenges, pneumonia cast a shadow over his recovery, underscoring the fragility of his situation. Yet, through it all, Gerald persevered. His final operation, just under a year after the tragedy, aimed to restore the intricate webbing between his fingers, a symbol of his tenacity and the hope that guided his journey.
“I’ve never regretted one day of ever being in the fire department,” Gerry said. “I can honestly say that for 25 years I went to work, and I never really had a bad day.”
Gerald’s legacy extended beyond his role as a firefighter. His passing at the age of 87 on October 2, 2017, marked the end of an era—an era defined by resilience, sacrifice, and an unwavering commitment to service. As Stamford bid farewell to one of its true heroes, Gerald’s memory remained a testament to the enduring spirit of those who selflessly serve their community, even in the face of the most daunting challenges.
Deputies Aide Jim Ferguson
Born on November 4, 1974, Jim’s journey embodies the essence of a true hero, a journey marked by dedication, courage, and an unwavering commitment to his community.
Jim’s journey in the career fire service began on November 4, 1974, a date that marked not only his entry into the Stamford Fire Department but the beginning of a legacy defined by his unyielding dedication to protect and serve. Prior to his tenure in Stamford, Jim’s commitment to firefighting was kindled as a member of the Turn of River Fire Department, where he began to forge the path that would lead him to become a cornerstone of Stamford’s fire service.
Jim’s dedication and leadership were evident throughout his career. On October 18, 1988, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, a testament to his unwavering commitment, his expertise, and the respect he garnered among his colleagues. Yet, it was a moment of unforeseen adversity that would truly define his journey.
At the age of 34, Jim faced a challenge that would test his mettle and spirit. The explosion left him with second and third-degree burns across the upper part of his body, coupled with second-degree burns on his legs. The path to recovery was arduous, marked by 31 days spent in the burn unit—a testament to his unyielding determination and the unwavering support of medical professionals.
The journey to healing was punctuated by three surgeries to graft skin onto his burns. In the face of adversity, he defied the odds, regaining full use of his hands and returning to duty.
In the midst of his recovery, Jim donned flesh-colored pressure gloves to aid circulation—a tangible reminder of the challenges he faced. However, amid the difficulties, a poignant symbol emerged—a watch that survived the blaze’s fury. When Jim tore himself free from his burning coat, his watch was wrenched away, landing in the alleyway. The remarkable resilience of this timepiece mirrored his own, steadfastly ticking even in the wake of adversity.
Jim’s legacy extended beyond the fire service and Stamford’s borders. His retirement in 1999 marked the culmination of a career defined by dedication, courage, and selflessness. The impact he had on his community and fellow firefighters endured, leaving an indelible mark that transcended time.
Today, Jim resides in Stamford. Fire Lieutenant Jim Ferguson’s name is etched not only in Stamford’s history but in the hearts of all who are inspired by his unwavering commitment, unwavering will, and triumphant spirit.
Firefighter Scott Gill
Before joining the Stamford Fire Department, Scott was a member of the Belltown Fire Department, a foundation that laid the groundwork for his unwavering journey in firefighting.
On January 4, 1982, Scott’s path intertwined with the Stamford Fire Department, marking the beginning of a career devoted to safeguarding his community. Fate seemed to align with significance, as he joined the SFD exactly two years to the day before the incident that would test his mettle.
At 26 years old, Scott was the youngest of the four firefighters caught in the explosion’s grip. His injuries, though less severe, bore testament to the dangers they all faced. With second-degree burns to his face, Scott spent just over a week in Stamford Hospital before embarking on the road to recovery. The scars left behind were minimal, confined to a slight mark on his ear. Scott’s resilience was evident as he swiftly returned to work, his determination undeterred by the challenges he had encountered.
His return to action in mid May, a few months after the incident, highlighted his unshakable dedication. The explosion may have tested his strength, but it did not diminish his resolve. With his hair regrown and his spirit undaunted, Scott embraced his role once again.
Scott’s journey continued with the SFD until his retirement in 2021, a culmination of decades spent protecting and serving the Stamford community. Today, Scott remains a proud resident of Stamford. His son, Patrick, is a Stamford Firefighter today.
Firefighting Station Uniforms… A New Industry Spun up.
The scorching explosion that rocked Stamford and left its brave firefighters battling flames prompted not only a collective reckoning but also a wave of transformation in the realm of firefighter attire. The injuries sustained by the four firefighters caught in the fireball underscored the urgent need for change within the Stamford Fire Department, leading to a comprehensive overhaul of uniforms and regulations.
In the aftermath of the explosion, a crucial directive emerged for Stamford’s firefighters: a shift from their previous uniforms to attire that could better withstand the perils they faced. The polyester-blended pants that had been part of the uniform were replaced with navy blue pants made from natural fibers like cotton. Peter Brown, president of the local 786 International Association of Firefighters, acknowledged that while nothing short of an astronaut suit could have provided absolute protection against such an intense blast, the change was a welcome step toward enhancing safety.
The alteration was spurred by the severity of the burns sustained by the firefighters, at least one of whom suffered worsened injuries due to the composition of their uniform pants—65% polyester and only 35% cotton. The polyester material’s tendency to melt into burns became evident as hospital personnel had to extract remnants of the material from the firefighters’ wounds.
The aftermath of the Stamford incident catalyzed an entirely new industry centered around developing work pants tailored specifically for firefighters. However, the urgency of the situation was tempered by the time it took to establish manufacturing processes for the creation of new, natural fiber pants that would resist melting when exposed to heat.
Remarkably, in 1983, standardized firefighter garments were not a prevalent concept. New York City firefighters relied on 100% cotton shirts and heavy cotton dungarees, offering a blueprint of sorts for Stamford’s own transformation. The temporary shift toward navy blue dungarees, made from natural fibers, served as an interim solution while a comprehensive assessment of uniform requirements took place. The two primary considerations revolved around selecting fibers that would not melt into the skin when exposed to heat and that would continue to burn after the source of the fire had been removed.
The Stamford incident of 1983 sparked an evolution in the way firefighters’ clothing was perceived and designed. As the flames subsided, the legacy of that pivotal moment endured through an industry that was forged from the necessity to protect those who selflessly protect us. The changes set into motion by the Stamford Fire and Explosion continue to reverberate through the years, ensuring that the sacrifices of those brave firefighters remain a catalyst for progress and safety within their profession.
Today you can find a wide variety of FR and other station wear that will not contribute to a firefighter’s injuries should they find themselves in an unfortunate situation, similar to the one four Stamford Freighters did on January 4, 1983.
Changes To State of Connecticut Law
In the wake of the harrowing explosion that shook Stamford to its core on that fateful day of July 14th, 1983, a significant step was taken to ensure the safety of both firefighters and the community at large. Governor William O’Neill signed into law groundbreaking legislation aimed at preventing such disasters in the future.
The legislation mandates that companies operating within the state of Connecticut must now notify local Fire Marshals about the presence of Hazardous Substances on their premises. This move, hailed as a monumental stride forward for the fire service, comes in direct response to the explosion that rocked the United Organics building, leaving firefighters and the community grappling with the aftermath.
Scott Gill, one of the firefighters who endured the United Organics incident, expressed his support for the law, stating, “This is a real big step forward for the fire service.” Gill, along with fellow firefighters Jim Ferguson and Gerry LaBlanc, attended the bill signing ceremony as a testament to their dedication to ensuring the safety of their fellow firefighters and their community.
Jim Ferguson’s testimony during a public hearing played a pivotal role in shaping the legislation. He highlighted how firefighters’ approach to the scene could have been drastically different if they had been aware of the specific hazardous substances stored within the building. This poignant insight spurred unanimous approval of the bill in both the House and Senate. Walt Finch was still recovering form his injuries and was unable to attend.
The legislation mandates that companies disclose any federally classified hazardous materials stored on their premises to local fire marshals. This crucial information is then distributed to firefighters, equipping them with the knowledge needed to make informed decisions in potentially dangerous situations. Violators of this requirement could face fines of up to $90.
As with any substantial change, challenges arose during the implementation of the law. Chemical companies voiced concerns that competitors might exploit the new transparency to steal their proprietary formulas. To address these concerns, the legislation includes provisions for maintaining the confidentiality of the disclosed information, ensuring that trade secrets remain protected.
The legislation, which took effect on July 1, 1984, was met with a mixture of relief and hope among the firefighting community. Fire Chief Joe Vitti acknowledged that the law was not a final solution but expressed optimism, saying, “We’ll have some knowledge of what we are going into – some knowledge of real hazardous areas.”
Peter Brown, the president of Stamford Firefighters Local 786, lauded the law for its impact on the safety of firefighters throughout the state, regardless of their paid or volunteer status. The legislation stands as a testament to the dedication of those who ensure the safety of the community and serves as a tribute to the enduring legacy of the United Organics incident that propelled change and vigilance.
The United Organics explosion, a catastrophic event that unfolded on July 14th, 1983, left an indelible mark on the Stamford Fire Department and the city itself. Situated at 387 Ludlow Street, the building was part of a complex of structures that housed a chemical processing facility. The explosion, which occurred just nine minutes after the initial fire alarm, unleashed a fiery inferno that engulfed four Stamford firefighters and shook the entire city.
The aftermath of the explosion was marked by the inspiring resilience of the firefighters who bore the brunt of the blast. John Ferguson, Walter Finch, Jerry LeBlanc, and Scott Gill exhibited unwavering courage as they faced the arduous path to recovery. Their injuries, sustained while battling the intense blaze, triggered a wave of transformation within the firefighting community. The incident prompted a comprehensive overhaul of firefighter attire, leading to the development of work pants designed to better withstand the perils of intense heat and flames. This transformation gave birth to an entirely new industry focused on creating protective gear that prioritized safety and functionality.
Moreover, the explosion served as a catalyst for legislative change within the state of Connecticut. Governor William O’Neill signed groundbreaking legislation mandating companies to disclose the presence of hazardous substances on their premises to local fire marshals. This crucial information equips firefighters with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions in potentially dangerous situations, ensuring their safety and that of the community.
The United Organics explosion remains a stark reminder of the unpredictable nature of industrial disasters and the vital importance of proper uniforms and turn-out gear. The bravery and dedication displayed by the firefighters, coupled with the enduring legacy of the incident, continue to inspire progress, safety measures, and unity within the firefighting community and beyond.
DC Gerald LaBlanc (Deceased)
Lt Walt Finch (Deceased)
Lt James Ferguson
FF Scott Gill
Special Thanks to:
Fire Chief Trevor Roach for his sport for this report
Retired Fire Marshal Carmine Sperana
Deputy Fire Marsha Riss Lane
And all those in the Facebook History Group that provided info.
Partial List of Those With Exposure Records Due To Working at the Fire
A/Lt. Avalon, J.
A/DC LaBlanc, Gerald
Mitchell, Don Jr.
A/Asst. Chief Petron, Thomas