The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Alcatraz escapees could have survived — and this interactive model proves it

The prison mug shots of convicts of, left to right, Frank Lee Morris, Clarence Anglin and John Anglin. (U.S. Department of Justice Handout via Reuters)

One of longest-enduring American mysteries began on a frigid, wind-lashed night in June of 1962. Assembled along the banks of the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was a trio of hardscrabble robbers. They were about to do something that would either make them famous or dead — or both.

The plan involved 50 raincoats jerry-rigged into a rubber raft, a few wooden paddles built from musical instruments and a harrowing two-mile voyage to the mainland. The obstacles: just about everything. The San Francisco Bay is ravaged by some of the strongest, most unpredictable currents around. A wrong move or ill-advised launch time would mean their small vessel would be swept out into sea — killing everyone aboard. So, either desperate, brave or unaware of the dangers, the three men got aboard and started for the mainland.

That was a half-century ago. No one ever saw them again. Many assumed they died out there. Others thought they made it — and beat the FBI. “What happened next remains a mystery,” the FBI said in its telling. “Did they make it across the Bay, get to Angel Island, and then cross Raccoon Straight into Marin County as planned? Or did the wind and waves get the better of them?”

Now, decades later, a team of Dutch researchers have engineered a novel new study based on several interactive models they say solve several of those mysteries. Recreating that night, they say the three men — Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin — could have survived. But only if they left at the right time.

The model, used to simulate the movement of particles and detritus in bays, was originally intended to study sea-level rise in the San Francisco Bay. But it made researcher Rolf Hut think of something completely different: the show “Mythbusters.” In 2003, the series did a program on whether the Alcatraz escapees could have lived that night in the waters of the bay. The show ultimately concluded that the men could, in fact, have survived.

So Hut decided to use this new model and put their conclusion to the test. “This was, in my opinion, the ultimate chance to reanalyze the events of that night in 1962,” Hut wrote on his blog. “I looked up the old tidal records. [Colleague Olivier Hoes] used those to calculate the water-flow around Alcatraz that night.”

Setting the conditions to those the men would have faced, they released 50 “virtual boats” every 30 minutes between the hours of 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. from numerous possible escape spots along Alcatraz, scientist Fedor Baart told the BBC, which first reported the study.

They discovered that the men had a real shot at survival — but only if they left between 11 p.m. and midnight. Then, if they paddled north hard, they could have made it to safety. But if they didn’t shoot north, or if they left hours before midnight — or hours after — they would have perished.

Here’s what the worst-case scenario looked like:

Here’s what the best-case scenario looked like:

In the best case, the escapees head “northwards with a speed of almost 1 km per hour, an almost Olympian effort,” Hut wrote. “In that scenario, they most likely survive and make it to the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge: exactly the same location at which the Mythbusters made landfall.”

They found that at around 1 a.m. that night, the tide reversed, and would have pushed the escapees along a different route. “They would have been pushed back into the Bay,” Hut told the BBC. “And then depending on which way they were paddling, they would have been sent into the north Bay — towards Berkeley and the mouth of the Sacramento River. … In both cases, they would have spent so much time in the water, they probably would have died of hypothermia.”

But, as their study shows, there’s a chance they didn’t.