How safe are the island’s parks?
The bunker was hidden under vegetation and discovered accidentally on May 7 when a dog named Ringo ran after a wild animal and fell into the pit.
Fire Department volunteers rescued the dog, but Ringo’s caper later sparked requests – including an editorial in last week’s Press – to make Fort Getty, Fort Wetherill and Beavertail State Park safe for the public. All three are former military sites, and the types of hazards run the gamut from open drains, tunnels, bunkers and crumbling batteries.
Town officials searched Fort Getty last week for other bunkers, pits and open drains, Keiser said, and they didn’t find any obvious hazards.
“They did not see anything visible to the naked eye,” he said. He added that they’re not satisfied.
On the walk-through, Town Engineer Mike Gray and Recreation Director William Piva did observe “depressions” in the land, which might indicate the presence of underground military structures.
The next step will be to “probe” some of those depressions. “The worst thing would be a sinkhole,” said Keiser.
Meanwhile, access to the World War II area is blocked.
Fort Getty is owned by the town, but the state owns the island’s other two tourist attractions – Beavertail and Fort Wetherill. Both are former federal military lands, which have been reclaimed for parks or wildlife, according to Larry Mouradjian, chief of the Bureau of Natural Resources for the state Department of Environmental Management.
The state has oversight of “efforts to secure known structures” in those parks, but the problem is really the unknown structures. Mouradjian said it’s a concern that is likely to deepen over time, as structures deteriorate.
“We’re somewhat aware,” he said. But old forts had “sophisticated” structures above and below ground. These structures include drainage, conduits and “subterranean tunnels.” Some abandoned sites even had “little railroad systems” that carried cannons and shells to the armory.
The bottom line is, the state doesn’t know where all the structures are sited. The DEM relies on the Army Corps of Engineers, which has been active dealing with environmental and safety concerns at both parks, Mouradjian said. The Army Corps has detailed maps showing locations of underground storage tanks, for example, but does not typically share their maps with the state and may not know about everything. Some forts have not been used by the military in over a century.
Many times, the drains and pits are discovered when a dog’s out chasing a rabbit and falls through – like the dog some years ago that went into a small drainage pit at Fort Wetherill. “It’s obviously an issue,” he said.
So are old weapons. The Army Corps sweeps the sites for mines and unexploded ordinance, but the DEM has also fenced off the most dangerous areas.
“We don’t allow the public into fortifications,” he said.
Dutch Island and Fort Greble are completely off limits to the public, he said.
“We’re not sure what’s there,” Mouradjian said. “Not in its entirety.”
The state closed Dutch Island in 2000 due to dangerous exposed bunkers and cisterns. Vandalism was also a problem, according to a memo for the DEM.
“Repeated attempts have been made by DEM staff to surround and cover a collapsed water cistern on the island with snow fencing and with bolted down marine plywood hatch covers,” the memo read. “However, the materials have twice been stolen and taken off island. The second theft occurred less than a week after the collapsed water cistern had been resecured. Signs warning of the danger posed by open and exposed bunkers and cisterns, some containing water 8 to 10 feet deep, have similarly been stolen.”
Trespassers on Dutch Island are fined if they’re caught, but some Internet adventure sites offer advice on how to hide a canoe or kayak on Dutch Island to escape detection by authorities. The island is only accessible by boat and is touted as a “step into history.” The lighthouse is also off limits to the public.
At Fort Wetherill, Mouradjian said, the state has bolted steel plates on windows and doors to keep trespassers out, but the vandals have stolen the steel plates and broken in anyway.
One person was injured falling off of a stairway inside the perimeter fence, he said.
“How do we protect people from themselves?” he asked.
Mouradjian said Rhode Island is still working on restoring Fort Adams in Newport as a site for events, as well as historic appreciation, but the state would never have enough money to restore all the old forts in Rhode Island.
“We would never have the wherewithal to do it,” he said.