The following story was used with permission of the Providence Journal.
December 11, 1998
Gone, but not forgotten
A Smithfield police officer is remembered 30 years after he perished while trying to save a 5-year-old boy who had fallen through the ice on the Spragueville Reservoir.
By THOMAS J. MORGAN
Journal Staff Writer
SMITHFIELD — As a tape-recorded bagpipe played a soft lament yesterday, Smithfield police officers stood to attention in memory of one of their own, one of an earlier generation, one who died bravely in the line of duty 30 years before.
Not a man or woman serving today wore the uniform when Norman G. Vezina plunged without hesitation into the deadly chill of the lower Spragueville Reservoir, where 5-year-old Kenneth Firby struggled to stay afloat after breaking through thin ice. It was Dec. 10, 1968. Neither would live to see the end of the day.
Long shadows cast by a weak winter sun reached toward a bronze plaque in honor of Vezina at the YMCA on Deerfield Avenue* as “Amazing Grace” drifted through the chill air yesterday.
“One of our brothers departed on a cold December day,” said Acting Police Chief Robert E. Coyne Jr., reciting a poem by an anonymous author. Ribbons on a wreath swayed gently in a breeze.
Alan Firby, 7, told their mother later that he saw his brother half-run and half-slip on a slope near their home on Deer Run Trail. Kenneth was unable to halt his headlong plunge. He slid onto the ice, about three-quarters of an inch thick, and it broke under his weight.
A neighbor, George Simmons, 17, alerted by the splashing, fetched a rope, waded waist deep into the water and tried to toss it to Kenneth. But the boy was “incoherent,” and Simmons ran to a nearby house to summon help.
Vezina had just finished directing traffic on Route 44 when the call came in from police headquarters that a rescue was needed. Vezina and George H. Kelley, a special patrolman, arrived before firefighters.
Without pausing, Vezina tore off his jacket and hat, tossed his wallet and jacket liner onto the shore, and dived in.
When firefighters arrived, Vezina was trying to hold Kenneth out of the water, but before they could reach the pair with a rope, they had disappeared. A boat later recovered their bodies.
One of those who gathered to salute and to remember yesterday was James McVey, retired deputy chief, who was the desk sergeant that day.
“I dispatched him to that call,” said McVey. “It was a cold, really brutally cold, windy day. When he got out of that cruiser he was dropping off parts of his uniform — jacket, gun belt. He had the boy up out of the water, but we have always assumed it was the cold that paralyzed both of them.”
He recalled asking Vezina earlier in the shift whether the patrolman had enough gas in his cruiser. There was three-quarters of a tank, Vezina replied.
“I said that was fine, that there was enough for the night shift too,” McVey said. “If a sergeant had said to me on a cold day, `Don’t bother gassing the car,’ I would have said `Fine.’ But he said, `Something might happen.’
“It was the last thing he ever said to me.”
It fell upon McVey to notify Vezina’s relatives.
“I had to tell his sister. When I opened my mouth, nothing would come out. I couldn’t get the words out.”
The bronze plaque, set in granite, reads in part, “He shall continue to live on forever in the hearts of the people of Smithfield.”
Norman Vezina was promoted posthumously to sergeant. He was 38 when he died, the newest member of the department, having taken the oath only eight months before.
* Today, the plaque for Sgt. Vezina resides at the Smithfield Veterans Memorial in Deerfield Park.