Mike Shannon was a 25-year-old reporter covering the police beat for the Oklahoma City Times newspaper when a deadly riot broke out at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester on July 27, 1973.
On Friday, Shannon, now the managing editor of The Oklahoman, sat in his sixth-floor office and recalled covering his first big story four decades ago.
“If I ever was in McAlester before that I don't remember it,” Shannon said. “I didn't even know where the prison was.”
His editor told him he couldn't miss it. He was right.
“You could see the flames, it seemed like, 20 miles away,” Shannon said.
Shannon spent that first night of the riot on the prison warden's front lawn, waiting for occasional updates from a scene that resembled a war zone. Behind the high prison walls, inmates carrying makeshift weapons could be seen silhouetted against blazing buildings that officials let burn.
“It looked like some medieval castle being besieged,” Shannon said.
The next day, Shannon was among a group of media members escorted inside the smoldering prison to listen to inmates' grievances, part of a bargain prison officials struck to obtain the release of 11 hostages. He was accompanied by Jim Argo, an Oklahoman photographer, who retired as photo editor in 2003 after 40 years at the newspaper.
In an interview Friday, Argo said he remembered at one point during that tour seeing prison guards carrying the body of man whose throat had been cut from ear to ear. It was then he said his escort, a highway patrol spokesman, drew his pistol and said “We're going to back out of here very slowly because this area isn't secure.”
Argo, 75, said it was one of only two times in his life he's felt scared, the other being when he stood atop a burning car at the scene of the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing to capture some photographs.
In the days before cellphones and computers, Shannon filed his prison riot updates to the newsroom by telephone.
“Smoke from burned buildings still clung to the air and armed National Guardsmen — wearing gas masks — ringed the area as newsmen entered the prison,” Shannon wrote in a story that appeared in that Sunday's paper.
Camera film was flown by airplane back to Oklahoma City for processing.
Even today, Shannon still considers the riot, which sparked reforms that reshaped the Oklahoma corrections system, among the more memorable stories he's covered during his long career.
“It was life and death and destruction on a grand scale,” Shannon said.