September 14, 2017 Updated: September 30, 2017

I didn’t hear the phone, but my older sister did. She opened her eyes, saw the sleet outside, and knew it was yet another truck in trouble.

Daddy owned the largest rig in Southern Connecticut and the only one with a winch powerful enough to haul a tractor-trailer out of a ditch.

But this truck wasn’t in a ditch. It was hanging, precipitously, over the edge of the bridge that crosses the Connecticut River in Hartford.

He didn’t encounter sleet until he was well along the Old Boston Post Road. As he drew closer to the bridge, he saw fire trucks and ambulances at both ends of the span. A dozen police cars lined the approaches.

The chief of police was in the car that came to meet him.

Glad you’re here, Carl. The trucker is still in the cab. We can’t reach him.

The state cops had already brought bags of sand from a construction site. They had used heavy rope to secure the edge of the railing that was still left intact. They’d also set up a make-shift tent of tarpaulin in the middle of the bridge, where several cops had taken refuge from the pelting ice.

Police cars had been strategically placed with their spotlights focused on the truck.

The wrecker had been hauling trucks up icy embankments for many years. But this was different. The huge tractor trailer had crashed completely through the railing, and the cab, with its driver still inside, was hanging precariously over the river.

Nobody knew if the driver was injured.

Daddy pulled the wrecker well past the center of the bridge, then gingerly backed it up, a foot at a time, his head out the window to ensure the cops were spreading the sand where he wanted it.

Finally, he got it into position, and lowered the winch. In those days, one had to manually attach the winch to the rear axle of the vehicle you were going to tow, so the cops moved the tarp tent as close as they could. They were wearing oilskin slickers. Daddy was not.

Securing the winch was just the first step. Next came the delicate maneuvering required to pull the trailer further back onto the bridge, slowly enough not to snap the cables or the plate connecting it to the cab. Gradually he turned the wheel of the wrecker just enough to clear the opposite railing, where most of the sand had been deposited so the wrecker wouldn’t end up sliding off.

Nobody remembers exactly how long it took. What they did remember was that when the cab was finally back on the edge of the bridge, there was a roar of applause and cheers from all the police and emergency workers, as well as from the crowds who had gathered on either end to watch.

Daddy doesn’t remember any photographers, and it’s likely the reporter didn’t even try to reach him, just getting the story from police and spectators on the bridge approach.

The New Haven Register contained a brief story on the front page, with the headline, Local Mechanic Rescues Driver.

Carl Florio, owner of Carl’s Commercial Garage on Kimberly Avenue, achieved a daring rescue last night when a tractor-trailer slid off the bridge over the Connecticut River in Hartford in an ice storm. The driver survived the ordeal, and State Police praised Florio for managing to pull the huge rig off the railing.

Carl's Commercial Garage, as it appeared in 1945. Photograph a few years later by Barbara Florio Graham. (Courtesy of Barbara Florio Graham)
Carl’s Commercial Garage, as it appeared in 1945. Photograph a few years later by
Barbara Florio Graham. (Courtesy of Barbara Florio Graham)

We didn’t see The Hartford Courant until the following day. The entire front page was dominated by the photo of the wrecker, winch still in place, cops all around, and fuzzy spots in the photo from the glare of the lights.

Hero Rescues Truck Driver proclaimed the headline, in type larger than I’d ever seen in my eleven years.

Daddy was not pleased. I’m not a hero, he said, his voice quieter than usual. This is what I do for a living. It’s what the wrecker does all the time.

But you saved that driver’s life!

Yes, and I’ve done that before, too. It’s part of my job. But my life wasn’t in danger, so I’m not a hero. Come here. Do you know what this is?

He pointed to a framed clipping in the front hall.

That’s about my father, he said, his voice still gentle. He was a hero.

He handed me the frame, and for the first time I read what was inside. Someone had written Hartford Courant, 1925 at the top. It was a photograph of an editorial from that paper, yellow with age.

Giacamo Florio (who changed his name to John after immigrating from Italy at age 30. Born in 1864, he was 61 when he died. (Photo taken by professional photographer, date unknown.(
Giacamo Florio, who changed his name to John after immigrating from Italy at age 30.
Born in 1864, he was 61 when he died. (Photo taken by professional photographer, date unknown.)

The Heroism of Florio

Recently, Giacamo Florio was laid to rest. He went down into a dynamite pit to rescue an unconscious fellow worker who had been overcome by the gases there. He placed a rope around his comrade’s waist so he could be drawn to safety.

But Florio’s heroism cost him his life. He was found dead by the gases at the bottom of that pit which had overcome the one he saved.

The next part of the editorial pointed out that my grandfather would not have been able to pass the literacy tests currently being considered for immigrants coming from southern Europe.

The editorial continued:

Florio had the one thing alone upon which admission to this land of opportunity should be predicated. He was a faithful, industrious workman. He was brave enough to risk his life to effect a rescue. What more does America want? It is our Florios who have done the hard, rough, dangerous work in building our nation’s prosperity, and never in its hour of peril has our country lacked Florios as defenders.

My father had gone out to work after completing sixth grade, and, largely self-taught, had built a successful business that had sustained us through the Depression and World War II. He was too old to enlist in the service, but kept convoys of Army trucks on the road.

Doing his job, as always.

I have asked myself many times how I define the word hero. I’m still not sure.