'Don't stop the siren': Newly unearthed scanner audio reveals early hours of Attica prison riot
The first warnings were odd: The word from officials at the Attica Correctional Facility to local emergency dispatchers was to keep the village's fire siren blaring.
Don't stop the siren, the dispatchers were told.
"Did the prison say how many times they want it to keep blowing?" one dispatcher asks.
"Keep going," a response comes.
"Did they say for what reason they want it to keep blowing?"
The answer would be known shortly thereafter: the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility in Wyoming County had exploded with a chaotic inmate rebellion. But, as recently unearthed emergency services scanner traffic from Sept. 9, 1971 show, emergency dispatchers maintained an impressive and imperturbable calm on that day as they tried to coordinate ambulance and fire crews that could be needed at the prison.
The tapes, which apparently have not been publicly released before, are a mixture of uncertainty about the unrest within prison walls, worries about the fate of prison employees, and more quotidian concerns about whether there were too many generators and too few lights available to set up outside at the prison walls as a standoff with officials and inmates began on Sept. 9.
And, the tapes also show an initial belief that the uprising could end peacefully. But, as hours passed and revelations came that the prisoners held 42 men captive, the hopes of a quick resolution waned.
"I don't think there's going to be anything resolved whatsoever (tonight)," a dispatcher says in the evening hours of Sept. 9. "I am going to get ambulances to (stay in place) all night long."
Deanne Quinn Miller, whose father William Quinn was a corrections officer killed by inmates in the riot, was given the tapes in a reel-to-reel form years ago. She said that someone holding an auction in Batavia contacted her because the individual thought she should have the tapes and they should not be sold at the auction.
"He said, 'I've had other calls of interest about them but I'm not feeling comfortable auctioning them off,' " Miller remembered.
Miller has kept the tapes in storage, and the Democrat and Chronicle, working with Animatus Studio in Rochester, recently had them digitized to see what they might reveal about the uprising.
While the individual who originally had the tapes believed them to cover emergency transmissions for the days of Sept. 9 through Sept. 13, when police killed 39 men in a violent retaking of the prison, the tapes instead appear to simply cover Sept. 9.
While the tapes may not be particularly revelatory, they do demonstrate how the uprising morphed from a violent combustion to a relative calm on Sept. 9 after nearly 1,500 inmates, having gained control of the prison and taken hostages, gathered in the prison's D Yard.
Early transmissions include calls to get ambulances to the prison for the injured who either escaped or were taken out. Some inmates helped prison employees get out of the facility.
At one point, in the early minutes of the riot, there is a emergency request for "extra stretchers."
"We have some other ambulances coming. They're going to line them up."
Miller's father was taken out of the prison the morning of Sept. 9 and transferred first to a Batavia hospital, then later to Rochester General Hospital, where he died Sept. 11. He was 28.
The first transmissions
In the hours before the riot, the emergency conversations were run-of-the-mill: car accidents, possible fire reports, minor injuries, and a planned Sept. 9 meeting at 7 p.m. of one organization or department — it's not clear which — to hear from "members delinquent in bill paying."
In the morning hours, the first reports came of troubles at the prison.
"I don't know what is happening," one man says over the emergency scanner after getting the first calls from inside Attica. "... I can't see the inside wall, but there's a lot of smoke."
"I see it from where I am," another answers.
One call to the fire department comes from the wife of a prison employee.
"Can you give me any information about that fire over there at the Attica prison?"
"No ma'am, I cannot not. I know nothing about it."
"Why I wanted to know is my husband is in there."
The seriousness becomes apparent
Meanwhile, officials inside the prison urged the Fire Department to keep sounding the siren, an indication of the severity of what was happening within Attica's walls.
As the extent of the riot became more apparent, the initial calls for a fire response began to include calls for ambulances from the area. Shortly thereafter, the first report came of the need to respond to injuries.
"If we could get a doctor ... at the locked gate, for injuries to come out," one individual says. "... Find out somewhere if we can get a doctor to come here and stay here."
"We need more firemen," a plea goes out only minutes later.
A flashpoint in prison reform:Visual story of how the Attica prison riot unfolded
After the initial rush to deal with injured men, it became clear that emergency workers would not be entering Attica and that a stalemate with prisoners had begun.
"I don’t know when were going to have to go in and put those fires," one man says. "It might be today. It might be tomorrow. When we do, we're going to have a have a tremendous amount of help."
For the hours thereafter, dispatchers worked to ensure there were medical crews and fire crews at the ready. Emergency workers from Wyoming County and across the region were dispatched to the prison.
Later, those numbers would be bolstered by National Guard, as State Police also gathered outside to prepare for a possible siege.
Outside of the prison, emergency dispatchers tried to order up sufficient equipment and people to confront whatever might happen, while trying to allow occasional rest. Fatigue set in for some, who had been working for hours before the riot.
"I'm going to lay down here for an hour or two," a dispatcher says. "I'll set the alarm clock for two hours."
Another emergency worker encouraged someone to bring hamburgers and other food for a possible long stay.
Firefighters called in lighting from across the county and beyond, trying to greatly illuminate Attica during the nighttime hours.
"I want every piece of lighting equipment from the county at Attica at the prison by 7 o'clock," a dispatcher implores, noting that they have plenty of generators set up outside the prison but too few lights.
As the day progressed on Sept. 9, organization and collaboration became the focus of fire and rescue squads. Different chiefs and others called in to let it be known what times their operations could promise to man shifts at the prison. The tensions occasionally, but rarely, show in the transmissions.
"There's no doubt if anything breaks I'm going to have you all in," one coordinator says over the dispatch.
"I've got another complaint to register," someone responds. "There seems to be a little problem in the chain of command here. We feel that we should be under our own chief, whoever he might be, and also you're the overriding man of all of us, rather than have 16 bosses tell us what to do."
Quiet then settled in. It would be three more days of negotiations with inmates, and a refusal by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to come to the prison, before State Police stormed the facility.
In those days, however, emergency workers showed that they were prepared to wait outside, in hopes of a peaceful settlement.
In the last hour of transmission on the tapes, dispatchers continue the scheduling for who will be at the prison when.
At one point, a department chief is asked, "Monday, 12 noon to 6 in the evening, or 6 in the evening until midnight, which one would you like? Any idea?"
That Monday, however, would be Sept. 13, and by noon that day, more than three dozen men would be dead and nearly 100 more wounded.
Of course, the department chief had no idea of the violent mayhem to come that Monday, offering to take the noon to 6 p.m. shift.
"We'll have a crew rounded up by then," he said.
A unique Augmented Reality experience from USA TODAY will immerse you into the timeline of the prisoner uprising and state police retaking of the Attica prison facility in September 1971.
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