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Sept. 13, 1971: 45 years ago, State Police retake Attica prison after riot

The Attica prison riot of Sept. 9, 1971, was the worst prison riot in U.S. history, with 43 people killed. One guard and three inmates were killed by prisoners early in the uprising; 39 men - including 10 hostages - were killed during the bloody state assault to retake the prison 45 years ago today. (The original death toll from the assault was reported as nine hostages, 28 prisoners.)

Although state corrections officials initially told the media that inmates had killed the hostages by slitting their throats, autopsies showed that the hostages had been shot to death during the retaking of the prison. Likewise, a report that a hostage had been stabbed and castrated by a prisoner also turned out to be false.

[Related: Unsealing Attica's distant brutality]

[Related: Redactions in Attica report 'sort of like throwing gasoline on a fire']

Lee Coppola, one of The Buffalo Evening News reporters who covered the assault on the prison that day in 1971, in his review of new book "Blood in the Water," described the scene outside the prison walls this way:

 A helicopter hovered over the prison yard and catwalk occupied by prisoners and their captives. From a bullhorn in the chopper, the prisoners were ordered to discard their weapons and free hostages. Tear gas canisters from the helicopter exploded behind the walls, and as the gas wafted over the 30-foot walls, the gunfire erupted. It came staccato-style, and those on the other side of the wall could only imagine what horror was happening on the other side.
Here is the front-page story from that day:

Nine hostages, 28 Prisoners Die in All-Out Attica Attack 

Many others wounded as state police, guards storm prison to crush riot   by Paul MacClennan, Lee Coppola and Ray Hill / Buffalo Evening News Staff Reporters
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ATTICA, Sept. 13 - At least thirty-seven persons - including nine hostages and 28 insurgent prisoners - were killed today in a bloody battle inside the besieged Attica Correctional Facility.

Resistance by rioting prisoners continued this afternoon.

The death toll was announced by Gerald Houlihan, public relations officer for the State Correction Department.

Even as fighting continued, wounded lay in the prison yard.

The dead hostages were all found with their throats slashed. Some were castrated, Mr. Houlihan said.

Most of the dead prisoners were killed by rifle fire from the guards and state troopers.

At 1:30, Mr. Houlihan said all of the hostages had been accounted for, the last having been rescued at 11:10 a.m.
In New York City, Gov. Rockefeller's office said he had been told that several of the hostages had been dead for several hours before state police moved into the prison.

At least 40 injured prisoners were taken on stretchers from the embattled prison, placed aboard National Guard trucks and driven away.

Priests were seen administering last rites to other persons inside the compound.
...
One of the freed hostages, Guard Capt. Elmer Huehen, said he escaped death when the prisoner assigned to kill him, whispered: "I don't have the heart to do it. I'm only going to prick you."

The prisoner then cut him. Capt. Huehen said, and then fell down on top of him so the others wouldn't notice he was still alive.

A stream of medics including doctors and nurses from nearby communities were streaming into the prison this afternoon.

At noon, 33 persons were being treated in hospitals in Batavia and Warsaw. They included 26 hostages, two state troopers and a civilian who was hurt while helping to evacuate the injured.

Early indications pointed to this being the worst prison uprising in the country's history.

Mr. Houlihan, the public information officer from the Department of Corrections, said the fighting was still going on inside in a couple of pockets. As he spoke, battle-weary state troopers were filing out of the embattled prison.

"We have no idea of the number injured," Mr. Houlihan said. Asked how many state troopers were hurt, he replied: "Maybe two, maybe three."

In Albany, the Corrections Department said 32 persons were injured, 25 of them hostages.

There was no trouble among the approximately 1,000 non-rioting prisoners, Mr. Houlihan said.

The assault plan was to drop tear gas and then send in troopers as quickly as possible.

Mr. Houlihan said the bulk of the hostages had been removed within 45 minutes after the initial assault, three more 25 minutes later and the last was out at 11:10 am.

The dead were found in "several areas" of the sprawling prison, the official confirmed.

"Different weapons were used to kill the hostages. There was no indication the prisoners had guns.

"State police were armed with shotguns, and the prisoners who died were apparently shot to death," he said.

The prisons fought with homemade bombs, Molotov cocktails and behind electrically-wired barricades.

A reporter asked whether it was worth 37 lives to regain control of the facility. Mr. Houlihan replied: "No time that life is lost can you ever consider it a fair exchange."

He added that state police "made every possible attempt to save lives."

He was also asked whether the State Corrections Department intended to meet the 28 demands that had been agreed upon during negotiations.

"We'll have to look at what's going on and consider it in the light of what's happened. There was no agreement reached per se because they (the prisoners) refused to bargain with us."

An official who emerged from the embattled Cellblock D area said:

"It looks like war.

"They obviously anticipated that force would be used and they had dug trenches in the yard area. It looks like what you would expect to see in a war zone. That's all I can say..."
State Police Capt. Peter Scasia said a lot of insurgents were injured in the storming of their compound at about 9:45 this morning, shortly after prisoners rejected an ultimatum to surrender.

"There's a lot of injured," Capt. Scasia said.

Members of the National Guard remained inside to secure the facility.
...
As of 1 PM however the prison had not been officially declared secure. About 12:15 PM two shots rang out in the cellblock area, and shouting was heard behind the prison walls.

A graphic account of the events inside the besieged prison at the time of the assault was provided by one hostage guard, Eugene Smith.

At the sound of helicopters, the guard hostages were blindfolded, their hands and feet tied, he said.

"The inmate had me by the back of the shirt collar and pushed me to the left," he said. "I fell down on top of someone."

"I was dressed in gray and at first the state troopers didn't recognize me until they saw that I was tied," he said.

"I didn't think they were going to storm the place, to tell you the truth. Some of the prisoners expected it, though.
...
"THIS MORNING I said my prayers - more than I've ever said before in my life, but I think I was being heard.

"No," he said. "the inmates were not taken by surprise."

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