No one knows better the danger that a tense circumstance can present than police in the United States. Constantly under pressure to control people who are guaranteed rights that provide them a wide latitude of no control, the scenarios that citizens can present range from the mundane to sheer terror, even for a trained professional. With that thought, we continue to reflect on moments in the history of law enforcement we wish we could get back, the sacrifices of those that have paid the ultimate price on our behalf.
Bristol is a suburban town outside of Hartford. The town’s limits shape an almost perfect square, cut at a 320-degree angle approximately. It’s home to ESPN, the former leader in sports coverage on television. It’s also home to Lake Compounce, across the street from ESPN’s main campus, a large theme park with the world’s highest rated all-wooden roller coaster. Also, Bristol sports the American Clock & Watch Museum, and the New England Carousel Museum. Both offer complete history of their subject, and are arguably the go-to sources in their fields. But if that’s not enough, Witch’s Dungeon is in town. It’s a quirky name for place that is a classic movie museum. The location plays movies from Hollywood’s ‘Golden Era’ on a regular schedule, and hosts actors for meet and greets regularly. It’s these kinds of things that make Bristol a quirky, character-rich town. Of course, character is something that drives most everyone, and it is revealed through many moments, over a lifetime. Character was the driving force in our next officer.
Officer Ernest W Schilke
Officer Ernest Schilke served for a brief time with the Bristol Police Department, immediately following a full tour of enlistment with the 169th Infantry in the US Army and Connecticut National Guard in World War Two. He was a young, fit man, sturdy and confident. He was the kind of person you would want to help you if you were in trouble. On May 17th, 1944, he responded to a fire, which became known as the Broad Street Explosion. A rolling mill owned by the Wallace Barnes Company was located there, and during a gas explosion, a gasket for streaming noxious gas for plant work came loose. Workers were trying to replace the gasket, while firefighters and police responded to deal with the fallout. Officer Schilke took note that a worker, Harold Pryor had fallen down where the gasket replacement work was going on, appearing to have lost consciousness. As Schilke made his attempt, he and Pryor fell down the shaft where this piping led to, a fall of approximately 30 feet. Firemen attempted a rescue, but it was of no use, both men died from gas exposure, likely within seconds of the fall. Two of the firemen who tried to rescue them were hospitalized and did eventually recover. Officer Schilke, a man who survived combat in World War Two, died in his hometown at the age of 23.
Several issues arose from this situation that were addressed locally. For one, the Fire Chief saw that the response could have been better, if they had radio communications with firefighters working at the immediate location of the incident. At the time of this incident, that was not a feature any fire departments had in the United States. The City of Bristol accepted a proposal from the fire chief to install radios in equipment controlled by firemen. Also, during an inquest by the medical examiner, Dr. Lawrence Frost found that both deaths could have been prevented, had the company employees followed their own company policy, which would have been to access the gas line shut off valve, stopping the gas supply. This obviously would have made the scene safe, even preventing the fall Mr. Pryor and Officer Schilke had taken in the failed rescue effort. While we wish we could say this was the last time an officer died under these circumstances, a glance at the Officer Down Memorial Page tells us that officers have died routinely trying to save workers under similar circumstances. We can hope for change, but in remembering Officer Schilke, we should remember to make all commercial properties safe, even when facing catastrophe.
In memory of Officer Ernest W Schilke.