New York Troopers - History
Preserving the Past for Those Who Follow
 
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THURSDAY - RIOT  DAY ONE

September 9, 1971 started out to be just another day. Resident’s of  Attica Village went about their business, as they had always done. The Attica Prison located just south of the village was the primary employer having a huge economic impact on the community. Guards and civilian staff reported for duty with no inkling of what was to soon take place.
Around 8:30 AM, the prison sounded an alarm of trouble by blasting the prison siren. This was a signal for prison guards within sound of the prison siren to report for duty as soon as possible. The inmates were rioting. The State Police at Batavia, N.Y. were notified and quickly mustered approximately 30 troopers who were detailed to the prison.  I had been given the day off for the purpose of registering in the Criminal Justice program at Buffalo State Teachers College that day. Instead, a phone call canceled my leave directing me to report immediately for duty. A group of “A” block inmates described by guards as “trouble makers” and “politicalmilitants” overpowered a handful of unarmed guards taking over control of a majority of the prison. As word spread of the takeover, other inmates armed themselves with homemade weapons, razors, knives, spears, pipe’s and overran a large area of the prison. They set fire to the chapel, prison school and machine shop, as well as three other buildings. In less than thirty (30) minutes, inmates seized a majority of the prison taking forty-one (41) guards and prison employees hostage, who were brutalized. Guard William Quinn had been severely injured and along with eleven (11) other guards and civilians was released to obtain medical assistance. Those held hostage were stripped of their uniforms and given prison clothing to wear. In this manner, they would be distinguishable from the inmates. In an article written by Buffalo Evening News reporter Bob Buyer on September 8, 1996, he recalled interviewing inmates in the “D” yard who told him that they were being forced into continuing with the rioting by other inmates who threatened physical injury to them if they attempted to leave. 
 
I arrived at the prison shortly after 10:30 that morning with a group of hastily mustered troopers from Batavia. A detail of thirty (30) first responding troopers and prison guards using tear gas had regained the “B” & “C” blocks from rebel inmates. Inmates that chose not to be part of the rebellion were confined to their cells. By noon, there were well over 200 troopers and guards at the prison. We all felt confident that we could and would soon enter and retake the prison from the inmates. Hastily made plans had been prepared and we were ready to enter the cellblocks, tunnels and catwalks. Instead, we were ordered to stand down by Prison Commissioner Russell G. Oswald who elected to negotiate, rather than retake the prison. He reasoned that the hostage’s safety was primary and any show of force could result in injury to them. Troopers and guards alike felt this was a mistake on Oswald’s part. A small group had earlier taken back two cell block’s with little, if any resistance. It was felt that the entire assemblage of officers should be utilized from the get-go with a deployment of men retaking each cellblock, yard and adjacent buildings one at a time. Firearms would be used only if absolutely necessary. The approximately 1200 rioting inmates had taken up a position in the “D” yard that was furthest away from the prison’s main entrance. We (the assembled troopers) felt strongly that a show of force would be enough to show the inmates the futility of their position. Inmates initially were disorganized, but relished their limited freedom and control they had over the hostages. With the state electing to negotiate and having hostages as a bargaining item, the rioters gained confidence that they held a strong position.
Troopers and guards were assembled in a grassy area just inside the main gate while awaiting orders to retake the prison. Others took up positions on the prison roofs and upper floors of the cellblocks to observe the inmate activity. The order to retake never came that day. In the late afternoon, troopers were assigned to squads and assigned to sweep previously secured areas. I was on a detail with Captain George Tordy with an assignment to re-check the prison mess hall. While securing a room in the kitchen area, a voice was heard calling out, “Al - - - Al, it’s me Neil - - - Neil Jones, you remember me” Somewhat stunned, I instructed Jones to show himself. A few seconds later, Neil appeared from his well-disguised hiding place. He appeared in good health and looked just I remembered. I arrested him several years earlier for the Grand Larceny of funds from a Thruway Restaurant that he managed. He was an easy-going, friendly man that you couldn’t help but like. He had taken refuge out of fear, when the rioting started. He was taken to a secure area by prison guards. The evening passed into night and somewhere around 11:00 PM, we were relieved by a detail of trooper’s arriving from the eastern part of the state. We went to our homes and only then did we learn details of the riot from watching television accounts. Commissioner Russell Oswald, NYS Assemblyman Arthur Eve, Buffalo News Reporter Bob Buyer and Attorney Herman Schwartz entered “D” yard and met with the rebels listening to their grievance’s. One demand was to allow outside observers into the prison to oversee the situation and act as negotiators. Oswald conceded to this request and 28 of 30 other demands presented by the inmates. He only refused the granting of amnesty, as he did not have the authority and the removing of Warden Vincent Mancusi, as he felt it would undermine prison authority throughout the system.  
FRIDAY – DAY TWO
The second day was planned and organized. Troopers were assigned to designated locations with a 12-hour, 8AM to 8PM schedule established. The Salvation Army and Attica Rotary were permitted to set up food distribution centers just inside the prison wall where they dispensed coffee, water and donuts in the morning, as well as sandwiches later in the day. An old friend, Jim Harding was working in the Rotary booth. We spoke briefly about the situation and what we expected to happen. It wasn’t until after the retaking that I became aware that Jim’s father, Elmer Harding was one of the hostages that had been killed. He was a civilian supervisor instructing inmates in a trade that could be used once released. 
My group included Sergeant Warden Barrows and Troopers Fred Walsh, Bill Sobolewski, Gerry Kalisz, Scott Saunders & Jim Lobur. We were issued .12 gauge shotguns and ammunition to be used only if needed to protect life. We were assigned to the upper level of “C” block. From our vantage point, we were able to see over the cat- walks into the back part of “D” yard. The hostages were not visible. Inmates wearing football helmets and cloths covering their faces were wandering around the “C” yard breaking up everything in sight for use as weapons. They were piling debris across the catwalks similar to a beaver dam in attempt to build barricades that they thought would stop any advance by troopers. Sometime in the early evening, we were brought fried egg sandwiches and coffee. The sandwiches were made up of a square of egg (mostly the white) in equal size to the thick homemade bread it came on. We were so hungry, that the sandwiches actually tasted great. It was a long, boring day.
We heard that that several other“celebrities” arrived during the day and met with the rioting inmates. There were 33 all together that included New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, New York Congressman Herman Badillo, State Senator John R. Dunne, Amsterdam News publisher Clarence Jones and others. They met with the inmates that night listening to their demands. We couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong with Oswald to agree to that many negotiators. Whoever the inmates wanted they got. There was no way that large amount of “brain power” gathered at one location, debating every issue could be effective. The only issue they should have been concerned with was the health and welfare of the hostages and getting them safely released. I don’t recall seeing anything written about the “good faith”observers going in and saying,
OK, you made your point, the world is watching, you won. Everyone knows your demands. The state will have to act on them. They don’t want another situation like this. There are a 1000 armed police out there and they will retake this place. You will be unable to stop them. Release the hostages and return to your cells peacefully.

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 SATURDAY - RIOT DAY THREE

Our detail was again armed with .12 gauge shotguns and assigned to the maintenance shop located at the rear of the prison. Our day was relatively quiet. Learning from the day before, we brought various food items and a deck of cards to pass the time. We played either Euchre or Pinochle most of the boring day. At one point during mid morning, a voice boomed out “HOBBS COMING THROUGH”. We all scrambled to our feet, as an elderly black inmate came limping in. He was a trustee that took care of an old Cadillac car owned by the warden that was located at the rear of the shop. Hobbs kept the car in tip-top shape and slept in it during the riot. He had been in prison so long, that when released, he purposely committed a burglary to get sent back to prison. We never saw another person until relieved that night. Again, the only news we heard was from the television reports that night.
 
I learned several days later that the only reason the maintenance shop and adjacent power building had not been taken over was because of veteran Guard Leo Swerniak. His assigned post was the rear wall guard tower of the prison. Being always alert, he observed inmates running through an open area in pursuit of guards and civilian classroom instructors fleeing the main prison. He instantly laid down a blanket of machine gun fire in the area in front of the inmates. His actions saved several co-workers from being taken hostage and building from being taken over.
 
We learned that Officer William Quinn died as a result of the injuries received on the first day of the riot. This changed the entire mood at the prison and removed forever any chance of amnesty from the negotiating table.
Late that evening, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale was allowed to meet with the inmates. He made a brief, self-serving, non-committal speech and left. Inmates had hoped for a strong statement of support for their cause and got nothing. The observer committee having met with Oswald the entire day took the 28 revised demands he agreed to back to the inmates. The proposal was rejected.

 

SUNDAY – DAY FOUR

 Our same detail arrived in the morning and was again assigned to the maintenance shop. It was another boring day of playing card games. Old Hobbs came along with ice cream for everybody. I never did learn where it came from. Everyone was getting frustrated by the length of time it was taking to resolve the riot. We just wanted to get it over with and go on with our normal routines. Several pleas were made to have Governor Nelson Rockefeller come to the prison and meet with the inmates. Rockefeller said no, that he would not appear, as it would establish a poor precedent in the event of future rioting. Oswald again appealed to the inmates to return to their cells.

MONDAY– DAY FIVE

THE RETAKING

Monday morning, September 13, 1971 was a misty overcast day yet quite warm for September. Arriving early that morning, we realized something was about to take place. The troopers we relieved were ordered to remain at the prison. Several National Guard trucks and ambulances were gathered in the front parking lot of the prison.
I recall Captain Henry Williams standing on the front step of the prison announcing to the troopers present that it was a grave and serious situation. Hostages were being held and part of the prison was still controlled by rioting inmates. An ultimatum was being to given the inmates to surrender or force would be used to take back the prison. If force was used, we were told to look out for one another first and if placed in a position where life was in danger, to use whatever force was necessary including use of our firearms. Lastly, let no one take your weapon meaning the inmates. Although outranked by others present, it was Williams who I believe ultimately made the decisions and was unjustly dubbed the scapegoat of Attica. He was the only supervisor that had personal knowledge of the troopers present, their abilities and how best to utilize them. Those that knew Hank Williams were aware that the well being of the troopers and the safety of the hostages were foremost on his mind. There was no thought of glory or heroism in his leadership role, only the idea to get the job done as quickly and safely as possible.
Captain George Tordy again sought out several of us for his detail that was made up of Fred Walsh, Bill Sobolewski, Gerry Kalisz, and Jim Lobur. Fred Walsh & I were given body armor and tear gas gun to use. Our group was assigned to clear the “A” tunnel leading from the Administration Building to times-square of any and all obstacles. (Times Square was the center of the prison where all the tunnels & catwalks above come together) The tunnel was about 8 to 10 feet wide and about 200 feet long. Half way down on either side were exit doors leading into the “A” & “C” yards. The tunnel ended at times-square that was secured by heavy locked steel gates. A guard would have been assigned there to allow for passage from area to area.
Our assault group gathered at the “A” cellblock gate of the tunnel that was kept locked. We could see some type of barricade near the side exit doors with times-square barely visible in the distance. At about 9:45 AM, we could hear a helicopter flying on the prison perimeter. The signal to go in was the cutting of all power in the prison that was coordinated with the dropping of a tear gas canister from a second helicopter into the “D” yard inmate stronghold.
We were given the go ahead with Walsh & I sending tear gas projectiles into the barricade, then further into the times-square area. I could see one or two inmates exiting the tunnel into the “A” yard. A guard then unlocked the gate and we proceeded into the darkened tunnel. We got to the barricade consisting of mattresses, wood, trash cans and table parts and pushed it to the side. As we passed the exit doors, a group of troopers behind us exited through them into the yards. We continued on to times-square where we found the steel gate locked. Our vision was obscured from the settling of the tear gas in the tunnels. I saw an inmate lying on the floor near the gate inside times-square and pointed him out to a detail of troopers that had entered unimpeded from “C” tunnel, through times-square and on into the “A”tunnel. Gasmasks were distributed to all taking part in the assault. Our assignment had been completed in just a few minutes. During the entry, I could hear the muffled pop- pop of gunfire in a distance that lasted for just a couple of minutes. No one in our detail fired a weapon other than tear gas. Some of the detail remained at the times-square gate while the rest of us went out into the “A” yard. I could see a helicopter flying above the prison with a repeated loudspeaker announcement telling the inmates to “put down your weapons, no harm will come to you”. I later learned that it was Senior Investigator Donald L. Smith making the announcement.
The prison was retaken within minutes. A rescue detail entered the “D” yard rushing to the aid of the hostages. A second detail identified and separated inmates. They were searched by guards, stripped naked and taken into the “A” yard. While in the “A” yard, guards were observed prodding inmates with their batons, but I never saw any outright brutality or torture.
Our detail was unaware that the hostages became human shields after the inmates refused an ultimatum from Oswald demanding their surrender. I spoke with several sharpshooters during the debriefing later that day. They were situated on the“A” & “C” block roofs with a powerful .270 caliber rifle with scope. They were in a position to see the blindfolded hostages and their captors standing on the “B” catwalk just prior to the retaking. The inmates were observed holding knives or a similar weapon to the throats of the hostages making threatening gestures. When the tear gas was dropped from the helicopter, sudden movements by the captors made the troopers believe the hostages throats were being cut and tried to stop the attempt by picking off their captors. It should also be pointed out that vision was quickly obscured with the dropping of the tear gas being spread downward by the helicopter blades and held there by the mist. It was similar to being in a heavy fog.   

TOM WICKER

Tom Wicker later wrote, that when Attorney William Kunstler arrived, the group became more militant in thought and were possibly perceived, as on the side of the inmate rather that remaining neutral. He said he never felt that the hostages would be hurt, because once that occurred, the inmate bargaining power was lost. He recalled that entering and leaving the prison on several occasions gave him an opportunity to see the strength of the trooper force. He knew that if they retook the prison, there was no hope for the inmates. Many would be killed. He felt there was a failure on his part not to relate his feelings at the time. Inmates were making speeches about “dying like men”. Wicker knew that some of them would die, but was fearful of harm or injury to himself, if he spoke out. He wanted to say, you are going to die, the troopers will come in shooting their guns and you will die. He said nothing.     
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