SCIENCE
12/16/2014 09:35 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

Alcatraz Escapees Could Have Survived 1962 Prison Break, And Here's How

More than 50 years ago, three Alcatraz inmates crawled through tunnels they had carved with spoons and escaped into the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay on a raft made of raincoats.

They were never seen again (although there have been multiple unconfirmed sightings).

But today, the debate continues over whether Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin somehow made it to safety or drowned, either in the Bay or the Pacific Ocean.

A new study suggests it's possible the three men could have survived, but only if they left Alcatraz Island between 11 p.m. and midnight.

Researchers created a computer model based on the currents on the night of the escape, June 11, 1962 and the following morning. Then, they released virtual boats to see what would happen.

Here's the best-case scenario:

"If they hit it exactly at midnight, the beautiful thing is that we see that they would have been sucked out towards the Golden Gate Bridge," Dr. Rolf Hut, a scientist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and one of the researchers involved in the study, told BBC News. "But the moment they were close to the Golden Gate would have been the moment the tide reverses."

And that would have allowed them to reach Horseshoe Bay and land in the Marin Headlands, on the north side of the bridge.

"The model predicts that any debris would then float back into the bay in the direction of Angel Island, exactly where the FBI found a paddle and some personal belongings," Dr. Fedor Baart, a hydraulic engineer at Deltares and expert on particle tracking, said in a written statement.

Hut said in the statement that the computer models don't prove that this happened, but they do show it was possible.

"Of course, it is really intriguing that the famous TV show MythBusters also found that the most likely landing place was Horseshoe Bay," he said, referring to an episode of the show which called the escape "plausible."

Still, there are other scenarios.

If the escapees left any earlier, the three would have been pulled out into the ocean. And after 1 a.m., they would have been pulled back into San Francisco Bay and toward Oakland and Berkeley, and spent so much time in the water they would have either died of hypothermia or been spotted when dawn broke.

Another set of simulations created by the team shows some of the worst-case scenarios:

Alcatraz is currently run by the National Park Service and the gift shop still sells spoons. While there is no concrete evidence the men are alive, they're considered fugitives and wanted by the U.S. Marshals. If alive, all three would be in their 80s -- and in 2012, the agency released images of what the three men might look like.

The Dutch researchers are scheduled to present their findings today at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting in San Francisco.

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