"Secrets of the Dead" Investigates "The Alcatraz Escape," One of the Country's Most Infamous Prison Breaks

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25 March 2016
Secrets of the Dead: The Alcatraz EscapeAlcatraz at Night, Photo: Courtesy of Hoggard Films
"Secrets of the Dead: The Alcatraz Escape"
 Tuesday, March 29, at 9 p.m. on PBS (Check your local listings)

          Alcatraz. The Rock. The most secure prison in the country at that time...Or was it?

          It is the most iconic prison escape in American history. On June 11, 1962, bank robbers Frank Morris and brothers Clarence & John Anglin launched a raft they'd made out of raincoats into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay surrounding Alcatraz Prison never to be seen or heard from again. Their disappearance left behind a cold case that has mystified law enforcement for more than half-a-century. Is it possible they could have survived?
          Applying new science to an old mystery, Secrets of the Dead: The Alcatraz Escape, premiering nationally Tuesday, March 29 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), follows a team of three Dutch scientists -- Olivier Hoes, Rolf Hut, and Fedor Baart -- as they set out to prove whether survival was truly possible.
          The documentary features interviews with Jolene Babyak, who, as the daughter of an associate warden, grew up on Alcatraz and was there the night of the escape; US Marshal Michael Dyke, currently in charge of the still-open case; and Patrick Mahoney, who was an Alcatraz prison guard from 1956 until 1963, among others.

          Originally, Hoes, a coastal hydrologist, was invited to San Francisco to help predict how rising sea levels may impact the city. Using start-of-the art hydraulic software, he created a sophisticated flow model of San Francisco Bay. But it was his colleague, Hut, a water resources engineer, who realized if you could use 3D-computer modeling to predict future bay conditions, you could also use the process to figure out the past.

          Using old tidal charts, the scientists built a 3D model that recreated the bay's currents on the night of the escape over 50 years ago. Determining these precise tidal movements was the first step to unraveling the mystery of what happened to Morris and the Anglin brothers. The next involved calling in an expert in particle tracking.

          "Particle sounds really technical but, in this case, that would just be a raft with three people in it, and what would happen given the tides, where would it go?," says Hut.

          Taking Hoes' computer model, Baart, a particle tracking expert and computer simulations specialist, created another model that simulated human behavior to show the effect paddling would have made. The resulting computer model made it easy for the scientists to see what would happen in dozens of scenarios if a raft launched from Alcatraz on the night of the infamous escape.

          According to the documentary, what the scientists discovered is the first scientific proof the men could have survived the escape. Their work has revealed that the prisoners' success depended on what time they left the island. "The actual finding is that they could use the tides to leave Alcatraz just on time so that they didn't have to paddle that far," says Hoes. "So Horseshoe Bay was the most likely destination, according to our research and not Angel Island." Conventional wisdom has always held that the men headed for Angel Island, the nearest landmass.

          Armed with their findings, the Dutchmen put their theory to the test. They construct a raft and makeshift paddles and then launch into the bay in the same tidal conditions the inmates faced in 1962.

          Will they make it through the treacherous waters to safety or be swept out to sea? And can they prove once and for all what happened to the escapees? The Alcatraz Escape presents the clearest answers yet to these questions.

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