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42-Years in Broadcasting: Rich Funke looks back on the Attica Prison Riot

Posted at: 11/01/2012 5:13 PM
Updated at: 11/27/2012 7:46 AM
By: Rich Funke

With Rich Funke retiring from full-time broadcast duties next month, News10NBC is looking back at some of the memorable people and stories Rich has covered over his 42-year broadcast career. The first big story Rich covered is one he says he'll never forget.

Rich was living in Batavia when WHAM Radio called him on the morning of September 9, 1971. They said, “Grab a tape recorder and get to Attica, the inmates have taken over the prison.”

Rich wondered if murderers would be breaking out and roaming Wyoming County. Rich got there as state police got there. He was 22-years-old and covering something that would make history.

There were 2,200 inmates living in a prison designed for half that. They were fed up with living conditions.. Things like one shower a week. So on their way to breakfast, they overtook the guards, and went on a rampage. They set fires and beat corrections guards and killed three of their own. Police quickly regained control of three cellblocks. But in D yard, a big exercise field 33 prison employees had been taken hostage. They were blindfolded and the inmates were holding makeshift weapons to their throats.

Troopers wanted to assault D yard right then and there, but were ordered to stand down. It was a mistake. Inmates found leaders and made a list of demands. The state decided to negotiate. Louis Farakhan came in on behalf of the inmates, along with Civil rights lawyer William Kuntsler. The talks dragged but were going well.

But then things changed. One of the guards who was beaten and tossed through a window died. Now the the inmates were demanding amnesty. and that wasn't going to happen. Corrections commissioner Russell Oswald begged Governor Rockefeller to come to Attica. Rocky refused and ordered inmates to surrender and gave them a deadline. It came and went. It was a foggy drizzly morning on September 13. State police came and told the media to move away from the prison wall.

Suddenly, Rich saw helicopters in the air, firing tear gas and through a loudspeaker, Rich heard them say, “Lay down your weapons and you will not be harmed.” But even as the announcement was being made, Rich heard shots being fired from the catwalk above. Troopers, corrections officers, and national guardsmen, were all firing--into the smokey yard below.

The gas lifted over the wall and onto all of us outside. Rich coughed up chemicals as he turned on his tape recorder and described what was happening. Then he raced to a house across the street to feed it through a phone back to the station.

The shooting continued for two minutes. When it stopped, Rich remember how very still and silent it became. Inside D yard, 29 inmates and 10 hostages were lying dead on the muddy ground. Officials say the hostages were killed by the inmates as Rich learned later, they were all killed by that gunfire.

Lessons were learned, attitudes and policies about incarceration were changed for the better because of Attica, but it was one of the darkest days in the history of New York State.

Two things that stay with Rich was that he used the home phone of a prison guard across the street to file his reports. When he came home that Monday to tell his wife what he'd seen, that was the kind of emotion Rich had not witnessed before and when he first realized the enormity of the situation.

Also, Rich lived in an apartment complex where one of the hostages lived with his wife and baby. Word came back to them, that he'd survived. State troopers' car arrived and everyone was gathered expected him to step out of the car. When they were told a mistake had been made and he had been killed.

Next Week: Rich will relive covering the Bills first trip to the Super Bowl.