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Incident prompts anxious moments, lock down for those on grounds

OBSERVER Photo by Timothy Frudd A police presence was evident during a lock down of the Chautauqua Institution grounds.

CHAUTAUQUA — Following the stabbing of Salmon Rushdie on Friday morning, the Chautauqua Institution initiated a lock down, preventing anyone from entering or leaving the grounds.

Visitors to the institution said they were anxious to leave the area but were prevented from exiting the grounds for hours. Parents of children at the Chautauqua Institution’s summer club programs rushed to pick up their children and remove them from the scene but were delayed by officials until they could be screened.

After a considerable amount of time, the Institution finally allowed people to leave the premises. However, the grounds remained closed to anyone except season pass holders.

Visitors with single-day passes were denied entry and the public was denied access to the area, as law enforcement continued to handle the situation well into the afternoon.

Witnesses to the event described the unfolding of the horrifying scene on stage at the Chautauqua Amphitheater.

“The two guys that were going to talk had just sat down, and this guy came up from the side and he had black on and a black mask, so you couldn’t see his face,” Linda Saunders, a member of the audience at Rushdie’s event. “He just started punching Rushdie in the face.”

Saunders said from her position, she was unable to see the attacker’s knife. “I couldn’t see it from where I was,” she said.

Saunders explained the shock of the audience when they realized what was happening.

“I just thought he was somebody from here that was going to tell Rushdie something, because he bent over to Rushdie, and then he started punching him in the face. Then Rushdie got up because he was trying to get away from the guy and the guy just followed him. Then it was a free for all on the floor with people from the audience.”

Another witness described the attacker’s persistence. “He was so determined,” she said.

Saunders said eventually someone was able to pin the attacker to the floor. “Then the attendees got up and tried to subdue him,” she said. “Then the police came out.”

Saunders said after the man was subdued, he was escorted away by security. After taking off his mask and hat, she said she was even able to see what he looked like and described him as a younger-looking man.

After the authorities had restrained the attacker, Saunders said Rushdie was helped off the stage, after which, he received intense medical attention.

Witnesses said the lack of security at the event was surprising, especially given the controversial content of Rushdie’s novels. “I just wish somebody had been there to stop this guy,” Saunders said. “I don’t know why the security wasn’t stronger.”

She said it was also surprising Rushdie did not have a stronger security team of his own.

Saunders said he did not seem to have his own body guards or security.

“If he did, they were dressed just like us,” she said.

Leslee Gorsynski, who had come for the day, said she talked to someone who had attended the Chautauqua Institution for 31 years and never experienced any problems.

“There’s never been a problem,” Gorsynski said. “It’s one of those things you don’t expect.”

In the aftermath of the attack, the scene at the Chautauqua Institution was quite somber. Parents escorted their children away from the scene in tears and confusion, while other guests demanded refunds for their tickets.

Most of the people who either witnessed the event or had been visiting the Institution were still in shock and disbelief.

“It was awful,” Saunders aid. “You didn’t expect that here. We were pretty shook up for a long time. They made us all leave the Amphitheater and then we wanted to go home and we came up to the gate and they said no. We’ve been hanging around, and then finally they let us out.”

Saunders also said the incident is causing her to reconsider coming back for another event at the Chautauqua Institution next week.

The Chautauqua County stress management team was called to the scene to help eyewitnesses and staff members deal with the trauma and work through the difficulty of processing the event.

“We come in at critical times in people’s lives and help them manage their stress,” Bob Benson, member of the Chautauqua County’s stress management team, said. “As the chaplain for the County Fire Service, that’s part of my duties.”

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