Alcatraz draws visitors for prison tour

SAN FRANCISCO — Ready, set, jump! Swimmers from all over the country and the world get together for the experience of a lifetime to see whether they are able to make the famous escape from Alcatraz.

To this day, it is unknown whether or not three former inmates, the Anglin brothers and Frank Lee Morris, who managed to escape from the prison on Alcatraz Island made it to the shores of San Francisco.

“America’s Most Wanted’ used to give me nightmares when I heard about those three,” said Mike Brombacher, one of the many people who attempted the swim. “If you want to escape from Alcatraz you have to have a lot of determination; I don’t think they made it.”

One of the prison buildings at Alcatraz Island, a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (Photo by Nicole Alibayof).

Brombacher found out about the swim from his mother, Soraya, who trained with neighborhood friends four times a week for six months at the local YMCA pool in Houston. They made a family trip out of it. Soraya, Mike and his brother Chris flew to San Francisco, hopped on a ferry, put on their wet suits and jumped right into the water with 500 other people.

Every Summer, 2,000 of the world’s best triathletes assemble in San Francisco for one weekend to participate in the Accenture Escape from Alcatraz Triatholon. There is also an annual Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim and an Alcatraz Invitational Swim for beginners.

“It was Arctic cold,” said Steven Greene, another one of the many who attempted the swim. “The water was about 56 degrees with four foot swells.”

“I swam for about 15 minutes straight, looked back and still saw Alcatraz right behind me,” Greene said. “It was foggy and I couldn’t see anything, not even the city.”

Brombacher said the current was so strong and the water was so choppy, it almost swept him under the Golden Gate Bridge. He didn’t make it to shore. It was so cold getting out of the water and back onto the ferry that he lay on the hot muffler to warm up.

“I had never practiced or trained, especially not in the wet suit so my armpits and neck were bright cherry red and it hurt so badly,” he said. “Next time I’ll definitely train first, although that is a hypothetical next time; I’m not doing that again unless I’m a whole new person who is fit.”

Visitors can see a complete cell as they were in the early 1960s at the prison section of Alcatraz Island (Photo by Nicole Alibayof).

Out of Soraya, Mike and Chris, Chris was the only one who made it to shore.

“It was every man for himself to the extreme,” he said. “I peed in my wet suit to keep myself warm. Oh yeah, it’s the first thing you do.”

Mike and Chris did a flip off the side of the boat and into the water. The plan was to swim together the whole time but they lost each other immediately.

“I remember having to talk to myself to cheer myself on and I even sang the “Rocky” theme song in my head,” Chris said. “I had to; every time I would turn my head to get air I would drink a huge wave.”

It took Chris about 63 minutes to swim the 1.5 miles across. When he finally made it he was shaking uncontrollably from sheer exhaustion, he said. He believes the inmates definitely made it to shore and are probably still out there somewhere.

“Anybody could do it; you could do it,” Greene said.

Greene, who made it across as well, also took the liberty of touring the former prison on the island as well; an experience the swimmers do not part take in unless they sign up.

“We bought the tickets online and two minutes later they were sold out for two days,” Green said.
Alcatraz Island is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The site is preserved as an historic military prison, a nature preserve for wildlife, a federal penitentiary, and, later, the location of a lengthy occupation by members of the American Indian Movement and Indians of all Tribes for Native American tribal rights.

Visitors Rosa De Armas and Anthony Minerva look out the bars of a cell in the prison (Photo by Nicole Alibayof).

Park rangers fill the island and are available for tour guides as well as to answer any questions. Upon entering, you are handed a pair of headphones for the audio tour; a recent addition for tourists.

The audio tour takes you on the same path inmates would take on their first day at Alcatraz. It shows you the individual cells, some of which are furnished, the recreation area where the inmates would play sports and socialize, the dining hall, also known as the most dangerous room in the prison since they were all armed with forks and knives.

Visitors also get to see where the inmates would go if they were punished. They were put in tiny cells right by the door to the recreation area without any light and minimal food. Sometimes they would keep them in there for as long as a week in the cold and complete darkness. It was called “the hole.”

“When we first got here, I envisioned the floor covered in vomit from people realizing this is it,” said Chris Bromley, a tourist from Northern Canada. “The smells, the noises, the knowing you are here, even the toughest guy must have been scared.”

“I heard they would allow them to shower in warm water to make them realize, with one toe in the freezing water, that swimming is not an option,” Bromley said.

“People come here because it was a federal prison and they want to hear about the notorious criminals,” said Benny Batom, park ranger on Alcatraz Island. “The real reason why it became a national park is because of its military history as well as the role this island played during the Civil Rights Movement with the Indian occupation.”

Visitors Rosa De Armas and Anthony Minerva, with author Nicole Alibayof, right, enjoy a snack in front of a photograph of the island prison at Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Island is more than just a home to a former federal prison. It was a Civil War fortress, a bird sanctuary, where the first lighthouse on the West Coast was built and the birthplace of the American Indian Red Power movement. Plan a visit if you are interested in learning more or if you’re just in the mood for a great swim.


If You Go

  • Alcatraz Island sells out frequently-up to a week in advance during the summer and near holidays.
  • The weather on Alcatraz is unpredictable and can change quickly from warm and sunny in the city to cool, windy, and foggy on the island.
  • There is no food service available on the island. However, you can purchase a hot chocolate at the Gift Shop.
  • Eating, drinking, and smoking is only allowed at the dock level.
  • Alcatraz is a sanctuary for thousands of seabirds. Feeding or disturbing any wildlife is prohibited.
  • Alcatraz has no entrance fee.
  • There is a charge for the private ferry service to and from the island only for about $35.
  • The swim could be very dangerous and it is recommended that swimmers train before attempting to make it to shore.
Visitor Anthony Minerva checks out a cell in the prison (Photo by Nicole Alibayof).

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