Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo
Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo

Earlier this summer,  convicted murderers escaped from Clinton-Dannemora Prison in upstate New York. The prisoner escaped by using unspecified power tools, cutting their way out through  thick steel panels that formed the back walls of their adjoining cells, entered a catwalk/utility area, and then shinnied six stories down to a tunnel containing steam pipes. There they broke through a double brick wall, cut an opening through a 24-inch steam pipe, crawled some distance inside the pipe, cut an exit hole, and climbed into a drain under a manhole outside of the prison. After cutting the chain that held the manhole closed they escaped without a trace. A manhunt is underway to recapture them.

I wish I could say the first thing that came to mind upon hearing the story was “these are terrible guys and I hope they get caught”. And they are terrible and I do hope they get caught. But my immediate reaction—and probably yours too, since you’re reading this on a website devoted to tools—was to wonder which particular tools the escapees used and how they managed to get them. Did they do all of the cutting themselves or did someone prepare the way?

There has been a lot of speculation on the subject but no real answers. The NY State Police and prison officials have released no information about the tools that were used, except to say they were power tools. But photos and video exist and they suggest someone used a grinder with a cut-off wheel. I’m not sure how else you could cut such neat looking openings through 1/4- to 3/8-inch thick metal. Comments made to the stories I’ve read suggest the use of grinders and some less likely tools: an acetylene torch (cuts look too clean for that), a plasma cutter (that’d be an interesting item to smuggle in), and a drill (Huh? I think they’re confusing this with the recent bank vault break-in in the U.K.)

An electrical cord is visible in one of the photos of the entry hole in the steam pipe. So perhaps the tool used to cut the hole was corded. But a professor of criminal justice was interviewed on CNN and he said something about the escapees not having used cords. Seems to me he is either guessing or someone told him off the record. If he’s correct, and the tools were grinders, then the people who cut these holes must have gone through a lot of cut-off wheels and batteries. We recently tested cordless grinders and while today’s models are far better than the ones from just a few years back, it’s asking a lot of those tools to do this much cutting through such thick metal in a short period of time. And the work had to have been done quickly, unless some of the holes were cut in advance by someone other than the escapees. That would be my guess because the bricks that were removed from the wall were neatly stacked and the openings cut through the steam pipes straighter than I would expect someone to make when they were concerned about finishing before bed check the following morning. And while it might be possible to cut metal during the day without anyone noticing the noise it seems pretty unlikely at night.

What do you think?

The video below is from CNN and is interesting mostly for the animation it contains showing the path the escapees took on their way out of prison. Sorry for the ad that runs before it—it's CNN and that's how they do it.

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