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Bristol's fallen firefighters honored at long last

NH pays tribute to Martin, Wells and Tilton

October 05, 2011
BRISTOL—It has been more than 70 years since the tragic events of Aug. 5, 1940 on Newfound Lake in Bristol. But the heroic members of the Bristol Fire Department's Rescue Squad who died in the line of duty on that day are finally to receive the tribute they deserve.

On that day, Forrest H. Martin, Earl L. Wells and Vernon A. Tilton, all of Bristol, were fatally overcome by carbon monoxide after attempting to rescue a workman, Martin C. Keith, from a 50-foot-deep well at a cottage on the southeastern shore of Newfound Lake.

Thanks to the extensive research and dedication of local author Jim Crawford and the determination of Bristol Fire Chief Steve Yannuzzi, the names Forrest Martin, Earl Wells and Vernon Tilton will be added to the New Hampshire Fallen Firefighters' Memorial at a service to be held on this Sunday, Oct. 9, at 2 p.m. on the grounds of the New Hampshire Fire Academy, 98 Smokey Bear Blvd. in Concord.

It is an honor that is long overdue, according to Yannuzzi.

"It is time that we acknowledge that this was a terrible tragedy, and these guys have never been recognized for their heroic service," said Yannuzzi.

Crawford tells the story of what happened on that day so long ago in a fascinating article that was published in the summer issue of Lakes Region Spirit Magazine in 2010, and is excerpted here below.

"In terms of loss of life, this remains the worst tragedy in Bristol's history," writes Crawford. " It was reported in newspapers across the country. It was also a controversial event in that, although everyone in the Newfound region was shocked and joined in the mourning, some felt the firemen were guilty of unthinking recklessness."

But in his riveting account, "Shock and Horror at Newfound Lake: 70 Years Later," Crawford concludes that the members of the Bristol Rescue Squad who responded to the desperate call for help that day performed much like any other courageous rescue team under pressure of emergency and in the chaos of the moment, when the true cause of the tragedy was not fully understood.

According to the entry from the official log of the Bristol Fire Department for Aug. 5, 1940, it wasn't until one of the Bristol Rescue Squad members, Albert Paddleford, was himself retrieved from the well that those on site began to recognize that something "sinister" was afoot. It was only later that they came to understand that carbon monoxide might be overcoming the men in the well. By the time the rescue crew arrived on scene, the gas motor for the pump that had been operating in the well prior to the accident had been removed. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, tasteless, odorless gas, and could not be detected without the kind of high tech equipment that is standard today.

A delirious Paddleford was taken from the scene to Plymouth Hospital, and eventually recovered fully. He was released the next day.

"What they did on that day is what every firefighter would do under the same circumstances. We need to remember that this event occurred in 1940," said Yannuzzi. "Today, firefighters receive the training and equipment that they need in order to prevent such tragedies from occurring, but the instinct is the same. One guy went in after another to rescue the men who went before. These guys are going to do whatever it takes to save a life. The same kind of thing could happen anytime and anyplace. Our guys come to work each day, knowing that they might not go home at the end of their shift. We are trained so that the worst doesn't happen, but there are never any guarantees."

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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