Did Alcatraz escapees survive? Computer program says maybe

It’s long been a mystery – could three escaped convicts housed at Alcatraz Island prison have survived a treacherous escape across San Francisco Bay? First a little background: According to US Marshals history of the Alcatraz event, on the night of June 11, 1962, the three escaped through vents in the prison and made their way to the northeast part of the island, where they inflated the makeshift raft made from more than 50 raincoats and put on three life preservers and took to the water. Varied reports stated that the inmates either drowned or made their escape via nearby Angel Island. No bodies were ever found. A fourth inmate, Allen West, was involved in planning the escape, but he never made it out of his prison cell. The known details of the escape were provided by West during several interviews, the Marshals stated. The elaborate escape plan was in the works for more than a year and aside from the life raft and life preservers, included the making of lifelike dummies to ruse guards on night bed checks and enlarged ventilation holes in their cell walls, which they used spoons to create and concealed with cardboard replicas of vent covers, the Marshals said. This week Dutch scientists from Delft University of Technology presented findings from a computer modeling program they were working on, unrelated to the mystery, that demonstrated the escapees could have survived the journey. From the Delft story on the research: “In hindsight, the best time to launch a boat from Alcatraz was [11:30 pm], one and a half hours later than has generally been assumed. A rubber boat leaving Alcatraz at [11:30 pm] would most likely have landed just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The model also shows that debris in that scenario would be likely to wash up at Angel Island, exactly where one of the paddles and some personal belongings were found. Olivier Hoes, a researcher at Delft University of Technology and a consultant with Nelen & Schuurmans, was actually working on analyzing the flood risk for large industrial facilities in San Francisco Bay at UC Berkeley. For that purpose, he modeled the bay area in considerable detail using 3Di, state-of-the-art hydraulic software. When he showed the results to his colleague Rolf Hut, a researcher at TU Delft, Hut realized that the hydraulic model could be used to shed new light at the Great Escape from Alcatraz. “To my surprise, that had never been done before, except in a famous episode of MythBusters. The only extra data we needed was the tide information for that night, which was quickly found.” ‘The simulations show that if the prisoners had left before 11:30, they would have had absolutely no chance of surviving. The strong currents would have taken them out to sea. However, if they left between 11:30 and midnight, there is a good chance they reached Horseshoe Bay north of the Golden Gate Bridge’, Fedor Baart, a hydraulic engineer at Deltares explained. The model predicts that any debris would then float back into the bay in the direction of Angel Island, exactly where the FBI found a paddle and some personal belongings. Resources ‘Of course, this doesn’t prove this was what really happened, but the latest and best hydraulic modeling information indicates that it was certainly possible. We also suspect the prisoners may have left later than has always been assumed because an escape at 22.00 doesn’t fit in with where the paddle was found. And, of course, it is really intriguing that the famous TV show MythBusters also found that the most likely landing place was Horseshoe Bay,” concluded Hut in the Delft story. Continue reading

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