NORTH HAVEN — One year later, the explosion that injured nine members of a regional SWAT team during a standoff continues to reverberate as first responders reflect on the incident.
“The incident really shook the entire town of North Haven,” said First Selectman Michael Freda.
The South Central Regional SWAT team were negotiating with a man, who had barricaded himself in a home at 385 Quinnipiac Ave. on May 2, when the explosion occurred about 8:30 p.m. in a barn behind the home.
SWAT team members were near the barn at the time of the blast, several hours into the standoff. Nine members, including three from North Haven, were transported to the hospital with injuries including burns, concussions, and broken bones.
Command staff from the Fire Department, including the chief, were on scene at the time of the blast because the standoff situation had closed down a portion of Quinnipiac Avenue, which is a primary route for the Montowese Fire Co.
Because they were on scene, Fire Chief Januszewski said he already knew the people involved, details of the property and home, and the situation that led to the fire. Firefighters immediately worked to extinguish the fire, which threatened neighboring homes.
“That incident was a catalyst for the region, and hopefully other states, to consider ... having a fire official at the scene, because you don’t know what’s going to become a fire,” Januszewski said.
For Januszewski, the events of that night were also an example of how the role of firefighters has changed over the years. Now more than ever, they are expected to respond into potentially dangerous situations to handle medical and fire calls.
When the explosion happened, Januszewski was three houses down. Police did not have any escorts available, so Januszewski and a fellow fire officer ran to the scene with no cover.
Firefighters who responded had police cover, but no bullet proof vests or helmets.
“I put my guys in some pretty precarious situations that night that I never expected to have to put them in,” Januszewski said.
Due to the May 2 incident, as well as a rise in school shootings, he asked for funds to acquire a supply of ballistic protective equipment in the 2019-20 budget. The request was denied by the Board of Finance. The department is looking into other ways to acquire the gear.
For police, the event highlighted the absence of a bomb tech on the SWAT team, said Deputy Police Chief Kevin Glenn. In response, they have provided team members with more bomb training, and established relationships with some bomb techs in the area that can be used as consultants.
Police also saw a need to reassess mutual aid, since more first responders showed up than were actually needed. Glenn said the over-response negatively affected operations.
Of the three North Haven officers injured in the blast, two returned after four to six months of recovery and one was forced to retire due to his injuries.
At least half a dozen other officers suffered minor physical injuries and many have felt the psychological impact, Glenn said.
“The psychological impact of a surprise explosion like that… really impacted more than just injured people,” Glenn said.
In the days, weeks, and months after May 2, the police department’s Employee Assistance Program provided resources, including therapy, to officers and their family members. Glenn said many took advantage of the program.
Resident John Sayre was later identified as the person killed in the blast and fire that destroyed the barn. Four dogs also perished. Town records listed Deborah Sayre as the property owner. She had filed for divorce from John Sayre the month before, according to Record-Journal archives.
At the time of the incident, former Deputy Chief Jonathan Mulhern said the wife initially reported allegations of domestic violence, which sparked a police investigation and eventual SWAT response. She was not in the home during the standoff, according to Mulhern. Sayre could not be reached for comment.
Due to the extent of the damage, investigators were not able to identify the exact cause of the explosion. The house and barn were razed and the property was sold late last summer. A new home has been built on the property.
Last year, roughly $100,000 was raised through a GoFundMe and fundraiser at Stony Creek Brewery for the SWAT officers that were injured.
“(The support) was tremendous,” Glenn said. “Just the support in general meant a lot, it still does.”
“The incident really shook the entire town of North Haven and it created a situation where through this traumatic event, what we saw was a community coming together, and in particular our first responders,” he said.