Hole cut through the steel at the back of one escapee's cell by unknown means.
Hole cut through the steel at the back of one escapee's cell by unknown means.
One of two holes cut through a steam pipe by unknown means.
One of two holes cut through a steam pipe by unknown means.

There has been a lot of speculation about the types of tools used by two escaped convicts to cut their way out of the maximum security prison in Dannemora, NY. Police and prison officials might not have known what the tools were immediately after the escape but enough time has passed for the forensics people to have examined the cuts and determined what made them. They probably know but aren’t talking because the evidence will be used in a trial.

Given access to the areas where the holes were cut, the average tradesman could probably figure what tools were used based on the marks at the edges of the openings cut through the walls of the cells and the steam pipe through which the convicts made their way to freedom. Speculation has centered on hack saw blades, which a prison employee has been charged with supplying, and power tools that may have been stolen from (or provided by) contractors doing work at the prison. It’s possible the escapees were careful to hide or dispose of worn out grinder disks or hack saw, recip saw, or circular saw blades consumed during cutting—and were able to sweep up all of the cutting debris that landed in their cells. But’s it’s hard to believe they could have done the same while cutting through the steam pipe because the surrounding surfaces are simply too rough for them to have collected all the grinding debris, shavings, or broken saw teeth that would have been left behind.

In an effort to determine how long it might have taken to make all those cuts with various tools, WCAX TV in Burlington, VT enlisted a welder and the New York Times a boilermaker to perform a series of cutting tests.

The NY Times test  (includes video) was performed on a 24-inch diameter carbon steel pipe with 3/8-inch thick walls. Assuming the openings cut by the prisoners were two feet square, then it would have taken 2 hours per hole with a battery operated grinder, 1 1/2 hours with a corded grinder, 2 hours with a heavy-duty grinder, 50 minutes with a circ saw, 45 minutes with a recip saw, and 20 hours with a hacksaw. Missing from their calculation is the number of disks, blades, and batteries the convicts might have gone through while making their escape.

The WCAX test (includes video) was performed on a 20-inch pipe of indeterminate wall thickness. Using a corded Bosch grinder their tester determined it would take 40 minutes and 6 grinding disks to make a hole the size of the ones made by the prisoners. They also tried with a corded Milwaukee recip saw and an unspecified blade. The welder who performed the tests believes a recip saw was used, though he doesn’t say why.

I posted a story about the escape a week ago and at the time I believed the convicts had a grinder and some outside help. The escapees seem to have had some help from the inside because a prison employee who worked with them has been arrested for supplying them with hacksaw blades and various hand tools. It’s almost inconceivable they made all the cuts with a hacksaw blade. Granted, when you’re doing life and 25 to life like the two escapees, time is probably not an issue. Still, I can’t imagine plunge cutting through a 1/4-inch steel wall and 3/8-inch steel pipe with a hacksaw blade, especially the second hole through the pipe, which would have been made from the inside.