Published July 26. 2014 1:22PM Updated July 27. 2014 12:09AM
Norwich —For two years, as he researched a book on his family’s harrowing experiences during the March 6, 1963, flood that ravaged the city’s downtown, Thomas Moody Jr. kept returning to the Franklin Street site where he, his two brothers, father and a neighbor spent hours clinging to the limbs of a maple tree.
He often pondered how that otherwise nondescript maple tree — which still stands — could be marked in perpetuity so that future generations would know the story of how his mother, Margaret “Honey” Moody, was swept away by the raging floodwaters seconds after she made sure her sons had been lifted safely into the tree.
On Saturday morning, more than 60 people, including members of the Moody family, neighbor and “hero” Tony Orsini and other witnesses of the devastation caused 51 years ago when the Spaulding Pond Dam burst, gathered on Franklin Street to fulfill Thomas Moody’s wish.
A permanent granite marker with a small oval photo of Honey Moody was dedicated at the Franklin Street property where the tree stands. Former state troubadour Tom Callinan sang his original song telling the story of “Norwich’s Lifesaving Tree.”
The Norwich Historical Society led by member Roberta Vincent — who also had witnessed the flood as a nearby Boswell Avenue resident — secured the listing of the maple tree in the Connecticut Notable Trees database and launched a fundraiser to pay for the marker.
“This ceremony truly does justice to the heroes that night,” Thomas Moody said. “My only regret is that my dad couldn’t be here today.”
Thomas Moody Sr. died Sept. 27, 2009.
The Moodys and Orsini lived on nearby Lake Street when police officers raced through downtown to warn residents that the dam had burst and urged them to flee for safety. The Moody parents and Orsini quickly loaded young Thomas, Jimmy and Shawn into the family car.
But as they turned down Lake Street, the wall of water slammed into the vehicle, sending it over an embankment and up against a garage adjacent to the tree. The adults grabbed the children and lifted them onto the garage roof and then into the tree. As Thomas Moody Sr. reached for his wife, she slipped from his grasp and was washed away.
Orsini fought back tears Saturday morning as he addressed the crowd gathered for the dedication. “It haunts me to this day losing Mrs. Honey Moody,” he said.
Honey Moody was one of six people killed that day by the raging water.
“Mrs. Moody was the true hero,” Orsini said. “She made sure her three sons were safe before she was swept away.”
The plaque was placed near the sidewalk at the entrance to a commercial parking lot. The maple tree is located at the rear of the inclined parking lot. Vincent said that because the tree is on private property, the historical society and city officials wanted to be sure the memorial marker was visible and would remain even if, in the future, the tree is cut down or damaged.
Mayor Deberey Hinchey invited those in attendance Saturday to visit the third floor of City Hall, where a display case containing a branch from the tree, photos of the flood, a CD of Callinan’s song and a poem written by Vincent.
Norwich native and national best-selling author Wally Lamb attended Saturday’s ceremony “back in his old neighborhood,” where he, too, witnessed the flood. Lamb said it looked as if the crashing waves of Westerly’s Misquamicut Beach were racing through downtown.
As Moody was researching his nonfiction book about the tragedy, “A Swift and Deadly Maelstrom,” Lamb was in the process of writing his fictionalized account, “We are Water.” The two authors struck up a lasting friendship.
Lamb, a former creative writing teacher at Norwich Free Academy, had Shawn Moody as his student.