Man survives plunge inside Westport's Gooseberry tower

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 7/10/19

His attempt to solo climb the perilous interior of a Gooseberry Island World War II gunnery spotting tower ended most painfully for a young man on Monday, July 8, just after sunset.

Although he …

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Man survives plunge inside Westport's Gooseberry tower


His attempt to solo climb the perilous interior of a Gooseberry Island World War II gunnery spotting tower ended most painfully for a young man on Monday, July 8, just after sunset.

Although he emerged with injuries that included apparent broken bones, it could have been much worse, said Westport Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief Dan Baldwin.

Accounts of the evening’s events were a bit confusing, but Deputy Chief Baldwin said the man, in his young thirties, was with some friends when they parted ways — he to the tower, the others down to the rocks perhaps for some fishing. Later, the friends said they returned, discovered that the man was inside the tower, and alerted a state employee who was in the process of locking the gate for the evening.

The man had managed to get inside the tower through a small opening — about 1 foot by 3 feet — some 10 feet up the outside wall. The deputy said it appeared that the hole was once covered, perhaps by a steel plate.

Inside “there is the remnants of a staircase,” up and around the interior wall, Deputy Chief Baldwin said. The frame is still somewhat intact but many of the steps are long gone.

Instead, the deputy said there is evidence that previous climbers have used planks in an effort to bridge gaps on the way to the top.

It is unclear how far the man managed to climb, Deputy Chief Baldwin said — “He didn’t remember” — but rescuers estimate that he fell between 10 and 20 feet.

It would have been a hard landing, probably against part of the staircase frame and the tower floor, filled now with a mix of cobble (stones), trash and glass that have accumulated over many decades.

When firefighters got to him, entering through that same small gap, he was conscious and alert, lying on his stomach, but mostly unable to move himself.

With help from lights provided by police and firefighters, they managed to get an IV into the victim place him onto a backboard and out an old steel door. From the tower he was loaded onto the department’s John Deere Gator four-wheeler and across the causeway to a waiting ambulance that took him to Rhode Island Hospital. Deputy Chief Baldwin said Wednesday that, unless some other issue arose, it appeared that he would recover.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was getting to the victim, the deputy said. Since squeezing him back out the opening was a bad option, they needed to pry open a long closed steel door that had been backfilled and blocked by sand and a boulder.

A heavy duty saw had difficulty with the thick steel so firefighters, including some off-duty rescuers, went to work with shovels, eventually clearing enough away that the door could be pried and pulled open.

A safety hazard

Both from the planks inside and the amount of graffiti atop the tower, it is evident that many others have climbed that tower over the years, Deputy Chief Baldwin said.

Although he doesn’t recall a similar rescue there in his 20 years on the job, the deputy said that the tower, in its present state, is clearly a hazard.

A DCR (state Department of Conservation & Recreation) officer was there during the rescue so hopefully something will be done soon, the deputy said.

As for the options, he guessed there might be several, ranging from tearing it down, to filling it with sand or even repairing the tower and making it safe to climb.

“I understand that they are reluctant to tear it down because it is used for navigation,” the deputy said, adding that, as a boater, he sympathizes with that since Gooseberry is surrounded by offshore rocks and reefs. Nautical charts have long indicated that tower as a landmark.

The tower, and others like it, was built during World War II to provide fire support for coastal batteries in Little Compton and Dartmouth. Spotters there could radio target information to the nearby batteries should an enemy ship or submarine be spotted.

Little Compton, in particular, was home to several batteries of the Fort Church complex, one of which was built into a man made hill behind the Sakonnet Golf Club. That battery contained two massive 16-inch battleship guns with a range of better than 25 miles.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.