Yolanda Bartolomeo and Al Leone

LIFE WENT ON: Fifty years ago, Yolanda Bartolomeo, 5, and Al Leone, 27, barely escaped the flood of 1955 with their lives. Leone, then a volunteer firefighter, was one of several people who saved the Bartolomeo family from the raging waters of the Farmington River. Their journey to safety took days and included taking refuge on top of a flooded car, floating atop a roof that had been ripped from a house and being stranded in trees. At one point, the pair had to lie flat on a piece of roof as it narrowly passed under a railroad trestle, which can be seen today in the photo behind the two. (STEPHEN DUNN)

By early afternoon on Aug. 19, 1955, the rain has stopped, the clouds have parted, and the sun is shining on Friday.

Ed Durant, who has been sitting naked in a tree amid the roiling brown waters of the flooded Farmington River for several hours, welcomes the warmth. Al Leone never notices it.

Leone is too busy fighting for his life in the treacherous floodwaters, which are choked with all manner of debris from jagged pieces of lumber, to logs, to furniture, to dead animals. At one point, he finds himself face to face with a hissing gas tank. At least it's not a snake; Leone hates snakes.

Out of nowhere, Leone experiences an incredible bit of luck when he comes upon an inflated automobile tire tube. He grabs it and hangs on for dear life.

After struggling in the turbulent water for several miles, Leone finally manages to get to shore near Garden Street in Farmington. He is battered, bruised and exhausted, barely able to drag himself out of the water. He is taken to the nearby firehouse where, distraught, he tells his story, believing that those he left to go for help - Yolanda Bartolomeo, her brother, Joseph, and Durant - may all be dead.

As it turns out, Durant has been rescued by a boat, and Joseph picked up by a helicopter. Only Yolanda is unaccounted for.

Leone goes up in a helicopter. They search for hours but can find no signs of Yolanda. Everyone is sure she has been lost.

Night falls, and Leone is taken home, where he tosses and turns all night with second thoughts and guilt.

Early Saturday morning, he and Durant hitch a ride to Farmington High School, where they find the Bartolomeo family. There has been no news, and the assumption remains that 5-year-old Yolanda could not possibly have survived the night in the tree alone.

Given his luck at finding the inner tube, Leone is beating himself up even more now, thinking he should have taken her with him into the water.

Meanwhile, three men who have been out in a canoe since dawn searching for survivors come upon a scene that both shocks and delights them. There, at the base of the tree in which she had been left, is Yolanda.

After clinging to the tree all night long, she had untied herself and climbed down when the water receded. Tiny, her dog, had jumped into the water during the night.

As her rescuers approach, Yolanda informs them:

"I'm a big girl."

Back at the high school a police radio crackles. Yolanda is alive. For one of the few times since the flooding began, the tears are of joy.

Aftermath

The floodwaters retreated almost as quickly as they had attacked, and streams, brooks and normally docile rivers returned to being such.

The rainfall totals were astonishing: Torrington had a state record of 14.25 inches; Winsted, 13 inches; Windsor Locks, 13.97 inches; and Hartford, 12.12 inches. Westfield, Mass., received 19.76 inches from the storm, including 18.15 inches in 24 hours.

Trying to put the rainfall into perspective, a Hartford Times reporter figured out that 14 inches of rain comes out to just over 1 million tons - or 243,299,840 gallons - of water per square mile.