Updated, 3:23 p.m. Saturday
NORWALK, Conn. – A notable Norwalk tourist attraction is finally gone after overstaying its welcome long enough to create the havoc that was predicted by Norwalk’s harbor keepers. Fortunately, the damage is “not that bad,” according to one contractor.
The Island Belle, a Mississippi-style river boat, left its emergency berth on the Water Street side of the Norwalk River sometime between Friday night and Saturday afternoon. On Oct. 29, as Superstorm Sandy rolled in, the boat became a three-story tall, 110-foot long battering ram on the Norwalk River, smashing the Norwalk’s visitor’s dock and drifting across the harbor in gale force winds as a police officer at the helm attempted to steer it. The Stroffolino Bridge was a potential target, but, instead, the boat hit an old pier on the other side of the river. (You can see it in this Youtube video by Ingrid Klipp.) Norwalk police and firefighters tied the boat up right away; it stayed there through the storm and the following 11 days.
“It was a bad situation,” Deputy Fire Chief Ed Prescott said.
Those who have the harbor’s best interests at heart had long warned of such a situation.
“It was a disaster waiting to happen,” said John Frank, former chairman of the shellfish commission. “Anybody who knows anything about boats and docks knew that that boat was way beyond the capacity of that dock. … If the weather was nice they could get away with it. Clearly, the first storm that came through, it almost had to happen.”
The boat was a topic of discussion at numerous meetings of the Harbor Commission, minutes on the city’s website show, yet concerned city officials were unsuccessful in getting the boat away from the visitor’s dock. The boat’s lease was up in April but remained on a month-to-month basis with Parks and Recreation.
Under fire, owner Ken Hart said in May that his critics had ulterior motives, and had a vendetta against him for personal reasons. “Other cities want us there,” he said. “I could go north and go to New Haven. I could even go south and go to Stamford. I could go to Long Island. But I believe in Norwalk and its history.”
The boat remained in Norwalk, even after the Army Corps of Engineers notified the city in June that it had to go, as it was in the federal navigation channel.
On Oct. 26, Harbor Master Michael Griffin sent Hart a letter ordering him to remove the boat from the visitors dock by 5 p.m. Oct. 28. Griffin threatened to tow the boat and sell it at auction if the order was not obeyed.
At 3 p.m. Oct. 29, the day Superstorm Sandy blew ahore, the boat was still there. Two of the pier’s pilings were at a 45 degree angle due to the weight of the boat and the force of the wind upon it, causing pressure on the pilings, a source said. The incoming tide and storm surge was expected to raise the dock and boat higher on the piling, making the dock likely to fail.
At 5:30 p.m., 24 hours after the deadline for the boat to be gone, Norwalk firefighters and police officers braved 70-80 mph winds to try to reposition it so less of its surface would be facing the wind. Wilton Fire Department divers were there to assist in water rescues and to back up firefighters working in flood waters, Prescott said.
A cable was secured to the boat; Jamie Fillow of Nat’s Towing tried to reel it in with a tow truck. The cable snapped. Onlookers cursed, expecting the boat to hit the bridge. Instead, it was steered across the river and secured by police officers who rushed to the site, with relatively little damage. Pieces of the visitors dock stretched across the river. Several of its pilings were smashed. But the bridge and the marinas down river were untouched.
That evening, Hart said the broken pilings were old and weakened. He did not return a Wednesday phone call asking for further comment.
Tony D’Andrea, chairman of the Harbor Commission, said $15,000 to 18,000 has been spent thus far on cleaning up the mess. He didn’t know how much rebuilding the dock would cost.
“It’s a shame that the dock was destroyed,” D’Andrea said. “I wish Captain Hart good luck, fair winds and following seas.”
Mayor Richard Moccia has been quoted as saying that the repairs to the dock would cost $100,000, which he said the city would try to get from Hart.
“I’d love to get that but I think it’ll be a lot less,” said Gary Wetmore of G & C Marine Services, LLC, who said he had submitted a bid to Parks and Rec Director Mike Mocciae earlier this week.
Wetmore couldn’t remember Thursday evening how much he told Mocciae it would cost, as he was tired and had given “100 estimates this week.”
“I honestly think the damage to the docks isn’t that bad,” Wetmore said, although he said he wouldn’t be sure until he starts doing the work, if he is selected to do it.
“I retired from the city and I grew up in this city,” said Wetmore, a former police officer. “I do what I can to help. They get a pretty good deal from me.”
Others are blaming city officials for allowing the boat to be at the dock in the first place.
“It was a lack of judgment, certainly,” Frank said. “Mocciae is responsible for judgments around that park.”
Pete Johnson, chairman of the Shellfish Commission, said in May that the boat was “basically illegal” at the dock. “If you’re going to do it do it by the rules,” he said. “I’m not blaming (Hart), but I’m blaming the city officials who let him do it.”
Moccia did not return an email asking for comment.