The worst Saturday night of my life

William F. Zorzi Sr.

September 13, 1993|By William F. Zorzi Sr.

TODAY'S big stories remind aging reporters of bigger ones they covered "in the good old days," and these newspaper veterans love to brag about their roles. Somehow, they get better with each telling.

Recent troubles at the prison in Jessup remind me of a Saturday night I'd rather forget. Having worked every Saturday night for more than 15 years on the old American when we had only one goal -- to beat The Sun -- the worst one in my memory book was a wild food riot by more than 1,000 inmates at the "Cut" on June 2, 1945.

Heavily armed troopers and guards had to shoot 17 prisoners before it was quelled.

From the very start, I should have known what began would only get worse -- a lot worse -- for this young reporter. I was working police headquarters with a highly competent opponent, The Sun's Snowden "Nick" Carter. This was before he became a horse racing expert, but when the press room phone tipped us on what was going on in Jessup, he showed me something about the speed of autos.

I missed the turn into the Cut access road, so I was the second reporter on the riot scene.

The state police decided about an hour later, after scores of other newsmen arrived, that the first two -- Nick and I -- could follow the small army into the fray.

Just as we crouched to begin the trek through the cellblocks, my backup, Harry Riley, a notorious prankster, tapped me on the shoulder and told me my city editor wanted me to call in right away! I ran to a phone booth.

As my editor asked me if I had lost my mind, that he gave Harry no such orders, I watched him take my place behind the state police and then heard the shooting begin. I would have to settle for "pool" reports.

(Years later, I helped carry Harry Riley to his grave with that scene still in mind.)

There's more: The next day The Sun ran a photo of the carnage, and in the foreground, surveying it all with both hands in his pockets and, of all things, whistling as though he were happy, was this sad American man.

We old-timers never make ourselves look bad in total recalls. So it has taken me almost 50 years to get this, the worst Saturday night of my life, off my chest.

William F. Zorzi Sr. writes from Baltimore.

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