Thursday, January 31, 2019

Marcal Blaze Reminiscent of Famous Sponge Rubber Products Fire 44 Years Ago in Shelton


The spectacular eight-alarm fire at the 45,000 sq. ft, Marcal paper plant in Elmwood Park, NJ, Wednesday night illuminated not just the sky but also memories of a similar conflagration 44 years ago. 

Gilda and I had just gone to bed about half an hour before midnight on Saturday, March 1, 1975, when the phone rang in our Seymour, Conn., apartment. We were living in the small town about 13 miles northwest of New Haven because I was a reporter for The New Haven Register. My initial beat had been the towns of Seymour and Derby. After a year, I was reassigned to cover another town in the economically depressed Lower Naugatuck Valley: Shelton (side note: in my new beat I succeeded Dan Collins, husband of Gail Collins—yes, that Gail Collins). 

My bureau chief, Don Anderson, called asking what I was doing in bed while downtown Shelton was in danger of being wiped off the map, consumed by fire. From nearby Ansonia Don had been rocked out of bed by an explosion several miles away in Shelton. 

I hastily dressed and sped south in my Chevy Vega. The sky became redder the nearer I approached Shelton. The largest structure dominating the downtown, the 475,000-square-foot Sponge Rubber Products Plant 4 perched along the Housatonic River was ablaze. Hundreds of volunteer and paid firemen from dozens of fire departments in southern Connecticut were attempting not so much to extinguish the inferno in freezing weather but rather to keep it from spreading to Main Street. 

Stretched out along 2-1/2 blocks, the plant had once been owned by the B.F. Goodrich company. Foam mattresses were it main product. Declining sales promoted Goodrich to sell the plant to Charles Moeller, an Ohio businessman who renamed it the Sponge Rubber Products Company. 

The fire had broken out shortly after 11:30 pm. As I talked with the police chief the reason it had spread so quickly and devastatingly became known. It was deliberately set. Arson. 

More astounding, the suspects were said to be members of the Weather Underground. They had tied up the night watchmen, strategically distributed 500 pounds of dynamite and 24 55-gallon drums of gasoline throughout the plant, and told the watchmen who they left unharmed in a nearby woods they were Weathermen. 

It didn’t make sense. Of all places, why would a radical group target the Sponge Rubber plant in Shelton in what turned out to be the most costly case of arson in the nation’s history?

Well, it turned out the Weathermen were not responsible. Moeller had a spiritual guru, the Rev. David N. Bubar of Memphis, Tenn., a Baptist minister and self-proclaimed psychic, who sought to relieve him of the financial mistake he made in buying the factory in 1974. Bubar recruited men from Ohio. They rented a Ryder truck to convey their explosive materiel. It was through the Ryder rental that they were nabbed. 

Moeller, as well, was charged but found not guilty. The others were convicted. 

Watching a fire can be exhilarating. But for a reporter, more emotional may well be the followup interviews with workers who no longer had jobs and whose prospects in Shelton and the other river towns of the Lower Naugatuck Valley were dim at best. Some 4,000 workers lost their jobs.

Several months after the fire I was promoted to bureau chief of West Haven, Bethany, Orange and Woodbridge. We moved to New Haven. Within two years I had taken a job in New York City. We moved to White Plains. 

Shelton slowly, ever so slowly, recovered. It converted the plant site “into open, public space with a veterans memorial, a pavilion, an annual farmers market and a riverwalk” (https://www.ctpost.com/news/amp/40-years-ago-fire-marked-turning-point-for-6106842.php). With the completion of a multi-lane Route 8 Shelton became a hub of clean, light manufacturing and an affordable bedroom community to Fairfield County Fortune 500 company executives. 

A little more than a year after moving to New York and writing for Chain Store Age I was assigned an article on a new trend in supermarkets—generic products. To understand the economics of these non branded alternatives I talked with a marketing executive from a then-family owned paper goods company: Marcal. 

Marcal was sold to an investment firm several years ago. The workers who saw their livelihood flame out Wednesday night face the same tough future as those who witnessed arson most foul 44 years ago. 

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