A heroic act, 65 years ago

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 9:00am
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The way Robert Gillespie saved a family of five — and their dog — from fast-rising waters on Corn Neck Road during Hurricane Carol sounds like something out of a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movie, only it actually happened.

Gillespie was an installer-repairman for New England Telephone and Telegraph on Block Island when the storm hit in August of 1954. A family trapped in their home down the Neck was unable to reach the Police Department. The only person they could contact was the telephone operator, who then alerted the 28-year old Gillespie. 

According to a report in The Providence Sunday Journal published on Sept. 19, 1954, Gillespie, who also enlisted the help of two unnamed men who happened to be outside the phone office, used the equipment he had on hand to save the family: 

“That simple handline, by which utility workers repairing hurricane-damaged cables outside your home have equipment hoisted up to them, can serve many purposes. For five people, it became a lifeline.”

“The three children and two adults were trapped in an ocean front home on Corn Neck Road, Block Island. Around them, flood waters spurred by Hurricane Carol were rising ominously. They tried to telephone police, but could reach only Robert Gillespie… He was the right man.” 

“Gillespie drove his company truck to within three utility poles of the isolated home, where flood waters stopped him. Then he reached for the life-saving landlines — four of them.”

“Wading into waist-deep swirling water, Gillespie strung the lines to form a continuous lifebelt from the truck to the house. One line connected the truck to the pole, two others linked the poles and the fourth was extended from the last pole to the house.”

“As the water inched up, Gillespie led the quintet as they followed the line to the truck and safety. A pet dog also was rescued.”

“The exploit was disclosed last night by a spokesman for Gillespie’s employer… Officials are mighty proud of Gillespie — and their handlines.”

Gillespie’s fame did not end there. Almost two years later, in the May 29, 1956 issue of Look magazine, with Marilyn Monroe on the cover, a full-page ad for New England Telephone once again recounted the tale, under the headline, “Telephone man helps save five from tidal waters.” 

Describing winds of 110 miles an hour, and a tidal wave sweeping scross Corn Neck Road, Gillespie is quoted as saying: “I was in the telephone office when I heard of the call. I’d been through hurricanes before and I knew the family might be in real trouble.”

After stringing up the lines, the Bell Telephone ad states, Gillespie “made three trips through the rising tidal waters. First he carried a small boy to the comparative safety of the forward end of the rope. Then, with considerable difficulty, assisted two women and a man and another boy. And finally, though almost exhausted, he guided the entire group along the all-important rope lifeline that led to high ground and safety.”

For his efforts, Gillespie was awarded the Theodore N. Vail Medal for Noteworthy Public Service at a ceremony at the Narragansett Hotel in Providence on June 21, 1955. 

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“This is just a very fond memory that we all have,” said Gillespie’s daughter, Jayne Saccoccia, while visiting the island almost 65 years after the incident. “It’s something that we talk about fondly.” The Gillespie family left the island in the late 1950s, first moving to Warwick and then settling in Cranston. Jayne has four siblings: Jean, Jacqueline, Judi and Bob. 

Robert Gillespie — whose nickname was Doc — passed away in 1987; their mother, Joan, passed in 1984. 

Although they left the island a long time ago, the Gillespie siblings return as much as they can. “We have the best time when we come to the island,” said Saccoccia, who runs Mineral Spring Liquors in North Providence with her husband John.

Saccoccia is obviously proud of this story, and proud of her dad, and she just wanted to remind people what role her father played during the Hurricane Carol. 

“It’s part of the island’s history,” she said.