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A Decade Later, Community Remembers Rutland Father And Son Who Lost Their Lives To Tropical Storm Irene

A photo of five people standing together.
The Garofano family. From left: Robbie, who died in an accidental fall at age 25 in 2010, elder Mike, young Mike, mom Sally and Tom. Both Mikes perished during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

On Aug. 28, 2011 Tropical Storm Irene dumped up to 11 inches of rain across Vermont. Seven people died, including a father and son from Rutland who were swept away by raging floodwaters. Ten years later, many in the community still get emotional remembering the men’s dedication to the city.

"A good guy"

“Growing up, it was always Big Mike and Little Mike.”

That's how, according to Tom Garofano, people kept the two Mikes in his family — 55-year-old Michael J. Garofano, and his 24-year-old son, Michael G. Garofano — straight.

Little Mike was Tom’s baby brother. They were six years apart. Big Mike was Tom’s dad. He managed Rutland City’s drinking water for 30 years.

“He was a good guy," Tom said. "Gruff, sarcastic.” Kind of a curmudgeon, he added, but in a good way.

"He pushed you to work harder, and you'd push him not to be so serious," Tom said. “And a lot of people respected him, whether they agreed with them or not.”

Tom followed in his father’s footsteps and also works in the city’s water treatment facility. He said that for his dad, it was always more than just a job.

“It's something that — I get kinda choked up, because it's what I think of it as too — it becomes your life," he said.

Rutland’s drinking water comes from a large watershed that feeds into nearby Mendon Brook. Water from the brook is treated and stored in a 90 million gallon reservoir system.

A photo of a brook with brown water over rocks
Nina Keck
Mendon Brook, which neighbors say swelled so much it looked like Niagara Falls during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Ten years ago, rains from Irene flooded Mendon Brook, which surged over its banks. Neighbors say it roared like a jet engine and looked like Niagara Falls.

As Tom remembers that day back in 2011, rumors were flying and things were changing fast. His dad was told by the fire department that the inlet building may have been washed out or was under water. This was serious, because it meant dirty floodwater and runoff from a nearby sewer pipe might be getting into the city’s drinking water.

Tom says his dad would have wanted to verify the status of the intake equipment with his own eyes.

“Because at the end of the day, it's his responsibility — the whole system," he said.

More from Brave Little State: Tropical Storm Irene, 10 Years Later

"Could not believe the devastation"

People who knew Mike Garofano say his wife Sally and his three boys meant everything to him. The family was close, which might explain why young Mike was with his father that day.

“You just did things together,” Tom explains. "My little brother was living at home, so, 'Oh, dad, you’re going for a ride? I’ll go with you.'"

Dick Kilburn saw the two Garafanos that day. He lives near Mendon Brook and was shocked at the force of the water and how loud it was.

“I just could not believe the devastation," he said. "Trees, rocks, boulders.”

Kilburn says he knew Mike Garofano well and walked with the father and son as they checked out the damage. He thinks he returned home just before they died.

Despite the roar of the water and the destruction, Kilburn says he wasn’t afraid when he was watching the water with the Garofanos.

“I had no fear whatsoever. And I know Mike had no fear," he said. "If Mike was afraid of where he was standing, he wouldn't have been there.”

No one knows for certain what happened next.

A photo showing a metal fence in front of a small building with a red roof, with water behind it.
Nina Keck
The water intake area in Mendon, where water from Mendon Brook is either allowed in or not allowed into the city’s drinking water reservoir with pipes and valves. During Tropical Storm Irene, the brook flooded way over its banks, and Tom Garofano says his dad would have wanted to see if those intake valves had been breached.

Tom Garofano says from what the state police told him after investigating the scene with dogs, his dad and brother were standing well away from the water on land they thought was secure.

“Where we believe they were was a couple hundred yards from the actual inlet," Tom said. "Quite high above the river, and far away from the river and water."

But the land was sandy, he says. And it was saturated by rain. It likely gave out right under the two men.

The elder Mike Garofano’s body was found the next day. But it took authorities more than three weeks to find young Mike.

"What we remember"

At the Proctor Pittsford Country Club, General Manager John Ojala says everyone at the club was stunned by the accident.

“I still didn't believe it until they found the body that, you know, he was gone," Ojala said. "It was just so tragic.”

The younger Mike Garofano had worked at the golf course for eight years. Ojala says the 24-year-old loved nature, and had studied horticulture and landscape at Vermont Technical College.

Kirk Abrahamson, course superintendent, hoped that one day, Mike would take over his job.

“If you knew Mike, he touched you,” Abrahamson said.

A photo of a person standing in front of some tall pine trees, by some flowers and a grey marble bench with an inscription of Michael G. Garofano on it.
Nina Keck
Kirk Abrahamson coached young Mike Garofano and worked with him at the Proctor Pittsford Country Club before Garofano died during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. When Abrahamson says he's having a bad day, he comes here, where Garofano's mom, Sally, plants flowers by her late son's memorial bench.

Abrahamson had coached all three Garofano boys in high school soccer. He says Mike was hardworking, kind, sincere, like a son.

“I still have — I like to call ‘em Mikey moments," he said. "He was just a great kid. I don’t let many people in, you know, and I just learned so much from him as his coach and then later.”

Abrahamson says what’s so tragic for the Garofano family, beyond what happened during Irene, is that their middle son, Robbie, died in an accident just 16 months earlier.

Abrahamson wiped his eyes and made his way to a part of the golf course where young Mike Garofano’s imprint lives on. It’s a flower garden near hole 10 that’s awash in yellows and blues.

“Mike's mom does all the flowers,” Abrahamson said. “She comes here every spring.”

In front of all the blossoms is a white marble bench with Mike’s name on it.

“I sit here all the time,” Abrahamson said. “Have a bad day? It's a beautiful spot to set.”

A photo of two people standing together with a road in the background
Nina Keck
Vivian and George Gulick live on Mendon Brook close to where the elder and young Mike Garofanos died during Tropical Storm Irene. The Gulicks didn't know the Garofanos, but say they think about them often.

Vivian and George Gulick never knew Mike Garafano or his son. But the couple, who live on Mendon Brook not far from where the two men died, say they think about them a lot.

“And whenever we talk about Irene, that's what we remember," Vivian said. "Yes, the roads collapsed. And it was horrific, and cemeteries got flooded. And people were without water. And our kids had to hike through the woods to go to school. And not to diminish everything else that happened. But that's what Irene will always be for us, is that a father and son lost their lives."

We don't always appreciate the public service people who make our cities and towns work in Vermont, George says. Now we do.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Nina Keck @NinaPKeck.

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