Cases of life imitating art can be found from time to time. One of the classic scenarios depicted often in film or television is a hostage crisis and the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon starring Al Pacino and John Cazale is one example. The storyline centres on a bank robbery that takes a turn for the worse, leading to the two perpetrators holding everyone against their will. The kind of terror seen in many of the most dramatic fictitious plots thankfully does not happen every day. However, real-life history is dotted with hostage drama and examples can be found from all around the world.
Attica Prison riot and hostage
In Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino’s character Sonny Wortzik is heard repeatedly chanting ‘Attica!’ at the police who have gathered outside in response to the hostage scene. This is in reference to a riot that took place at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York on September 9th 1971. Inmates turned on the prison staff as they tried to lead them back to their cells in a change from their usual routine of going out to the yard after breakfast. The reason related to an inmate who had been locked up for an incident the previous evening where he had struck an officer with a soup can. A group of inmates had then managed to free him from his cell in the morning on the way to breakfast and the guards retaliated. Assaults on staff began and around 1,000 of the inmates, rioting also for improved conditions and political rights, took control of the prison. 42 members of staff were taken hostage and as unsuccessful negotiations with Correctional Services Commissioner Russell G Oswald and others rumbled on, the scenes became more gruesome. Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused to come to the prison to discuss the inmates’ demands and soldiers and troopers came in four days after the riot started. Ten hostages and 29 inmates were killed altogether, with shotguns and other weapons being used to reclaim the facility.
Sydney bank robbery
On January 31st 1984, Australia had its attention fixed on an incident at the Commonwealth Bank on Sydney’s George Street. The drama started to unfold from around 10:30 in the morning as Hakki Bahadir Atahan, an unemployed 35-year-old Turkish man, took eleven people in the bank hostage. Atahan had quite a history when it came to bank robberies, reportedly carrying out an incredible 35 in the year leading up to this particular one. Police had been alerted to him and sent in heavily armed officers to surround the bank. Despite their presence, he managed to keep them in suspense for several hours and having already released the customers he let four female employees go. Five male members of staff were kept hostage before Atahan eventually made his way out of the bank. He forced each hostage to form a circle around him as he emerged, making them each place one of their hands on his head. Police could not get a clear look at him and he then led the hostages into a nearby vehicle. One of the hostages was made to drive through police roadblocks and a pursuit involving 39 police cars, a helicopter and Water Police ensued. Atahan collected his girlfriend and released a hostage, but police halted his progress by raising the Spit Bridge. He was surrounded and ordered to surrender but shot Detector Senior Constable Steve Canelis in the face from close range. Amazingly, Canelis survived, but officers responded by shooting Atahan dead.
Palace of Justice siege
Explosive events played out in November 1985 with an attack on the Supreme Court of Colombia. The Palace of Justice siege saw 120 lives lost and began with individuals from the M-19 guerrilla organisation holding the Supreme Court hostage. Thirty-five M-19 members stormed the building, killing security guards and the building manager as they took judges hostage amongst 300 people overall. The guerrillas demanded that President Belisario Betancur come to stand trial as they attempted to prevent the country’s extradition laws being institutionalised. The President refused and the army were sent to re-take control of the palace, initially occupying the lower floors, with guerrillas already manning the higher floors. The M-19 members reportedly burned criminal records relating to a number of their personnel and more than 6,000 documents were destroyed. The military assault on the building resulted in the deaths of over 100 people and many more are said to have mysteriously ‘disappeared’. Around 200 hostages are said to have been saved by the army but among the dead were troops, guerrillas, hostages, visitors and judges.