THIRTEEN’s Secrets of the Dead Investigates The Alcatraz Escape One of the Country’s Most Infamous Prison BreaksTuesday, March 29, at 9 p.m. on PBS
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.
Secrets of the Dead: The Alcatraz Escape is produced by Hoggard Films and THIRTEEN Productions, LLC for WNET in association with Discovery Networks International and Yesterday, UKTV. Executive Producers for Hoggard Films are Daphna Rubin and Steven Hoggard. Co-production Executive is Lilla Hurst. Producer is Daphna Rubin. Director/Writer is Steven Hoggard. Executive in charge for WNET is Stephen Segaller. Executive producer for WNET is Steve Burns. Supervising producer for WNET is Stephanie Carter.
This program is among the full-length episodes that will be available for viewing after broadcast on Secrets of the Dead Online (pbs.org/secrets). Along with the extensive online video catalog, the series website provides resources for educators with lesson plans for middle school and high school teachers. As one of PBS’s ongoing limited primetime series, Secrets of the Dead is a perennial favorite among viewers, routinely ranking among the 10 most-watched series on public television. Currently in its 15th season, Secrets of the Dead continues its unique brand of archaeological sleuthing employing advances in investigative techniques, forensic science and historical scholarship to offer new evidence about forgotten mysteries. Secrets of the Dead has received 10 CINE Golden Eagle Awards and six Emmy nominations, among numerous other awards.
As New York’s flagship public media provider and the parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21 and operator of NJTV, WNET brings quality arts, education and public affairs programming to more than 5 million viewers each week. WNET produces and presents such acclaimed PBS series as Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend, Charlie Rose and a range of documentaries, children’s programs, and local news and cultural offerings available on air and online. Pioneers in educational programming, WNET has created such groundbreaking series as Get the Math, Oh Noah! and Cyberchase and provides tools for educators that bring compelling content to life in the classroom and at home. WNET highlights the tri-state’s unique culture and diverse communities through NYC-ARTS, Reel 13, NJTV News with Mary Alice Williams and MetroFocus, the multi-platform news magazine focusing on the New York region. WNET is also a leader in connecting with viewers on emerging platforms, including the THIRTEEN Explore App where users can stream PBS content for free.