Irene Floods Rip Open Cemetery In Rochester

09/01/11 7:17AM Mark Davis, Valley News

Valley News/James M. Patterson
In Rochester, about 26 caskets were unearthed when a brook swelled into a torrent and ripped through Woodlawn Cemetery in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.

This town, among the hardest hit in Vermont by Tropical Storm Irene, was still without electricity and phone service on Wednesday.

Almost all of its roads were washed out, many townspeople still relying on supplies brought by neighboring towns on ATVs.

But Rochester also suffered a different kind of nightmare. A gentle downtown brook swelled into a torrent and ripped through Woodlawn Cemetery, unearthing about 25 caskets and strewing their remains throughout downtown.

Many of the graves were about 30 years old, and none of the burials was recent.Yesterday, those remains were still outside, covered by blue tarps.

Scattered bones on both sides of Route 100 were marked by small red flags.

"We can't do anything for these poor people except pick it up," said Randolph resident Tom Harty, a former state trooper and funeral home director who is leading the effort to recover the remains.

It was more than 48 hours before officials in Rochester -- which was cut off from surrounding towns until Tuesday -- could turn their attention to the problem: For a time, an open casket lay in the middle of Route 100, the town's main thoroughfare, the remains plainly visible.

Officials aren't sure exactly how many graves were unearthed by the flood -- the cemetery's yellowed, hand-written records are spotty. One part of the cemetery destroyed by the flood had been reserved for indigents.

Valley News/James M. Patterson
With a dozen towns isolated and pleading for help, the cemetery calamity could not be a top priority for aid and rescue teams. So, a few local volunteers took responsibility: On Tuesday, two cemetery commissioners joined with Harty and began covering bodies, trying to identify as many of the remains as possible.

Eventually, the team hopes to communicate with the family members. The volunteers have recovered clothing, and hope the families of the deceased will remember what their former loved ones were wearing. "Somebody can say, 'We buried dad in a black tuxedo.' And we can say, 'OK, look at what we've got,'" Harty said.

Cemetery commissioners were allowed only to cover the bodies and identify the remains: A team from the Vermont Medical Examiner's Office, who arrived yesterday, was allowed to handle them. Eventually, Harty said, a federal team trained to respond to ruined cemeteries is expected to take control of the scene.

But identifying the remains and tracking down relatives will be a long and painstaking effort. Meanwhile, Rochester's supplies are being ferried 10 miles from Bethel by all-terrain vehicles over Camp Brook Road.

So yesterday, three days after Irene unleashed her fury, the scene at the ruined cemetery was disturbing, the odor occasionally penetrating. Caskets lay open and upturned in the rubble near the brook.  Nearby, another casket rested on top of a vault, slightly askew: Harty had determined that, based on its size, the casket actually had come from different vault.

Across Route 100, bones sat in plain sight on top of six inches of hardening mud.

Pieces of concrete vaults lay by the side of Route 100, a man's jacket, black, had washed up near a bridge spanning the brook.

Harty said more remains will be uncovered in the weeks to come. "This is what it's going to be," Harty said.

Cemetery commissioners, who were all stranded in their homes for at least 24 hours, roped off the cemetery to outsiders on Monday.

A few relatives also have stopped at the cemetery.

Laura Paige, a former Rochester resident, hitchhiked into town yesterday afternoon, walked up to the roped off entrance of the cemetery and asked Commissioner Sue Flewelling if she could enter.

She wanted to know if her grandfather, who helped to raise her, was still in his grave.

"I'm very sorry, at this time it's unknown," Flewelling told her, denying her entrance. "We know some people are there and some aren't, but that's one we don't." Paige became emotional, but quickly apologized to Flewelling .

"That's OK, honey, I perfectly understand -- it's your loved one," Flewelling said. "And we're trying to protect them."

As she walked away, Paige said that she had visited her grandfather's grave every week, to update him about her life and to drop off a Marlboro red cigarette, his favorite.

"It's indescribable," Paige, 28, said. "Where am I going to go to tell him how my kids are doing?"

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or (603) 727-3304

 

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