An attack on author Salman Rushdie, 75, stabbed multiple times at a speaking engagement at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York, has shocked the world. A suspect, New Jersey resident Hadi Matar, was taken into custody and has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder in the second degree, among other charges. The Booker Prize-winning writer — whose 1988 novel The Satanic Verses resulted in a fatwa placed on him by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran — is currently in critical condition at a Pennsylvania hospital, where he underwent surgery for his injuries, which include three stab wounds to the right side of the front of his neck, four stab wounds to his stomach, a puncture wound to his right eye, a puncture wound to his chest and a laceration on his right thigh, according to Chautauqua County District Attorney Jason Schmidt.
Present at the attack were Tim Roche, a Marvel Comics editor, and his wife, Abby Schwarzwalder, showrunner for Jay Leno’s Garage, who share their eyewitness account with The Hollywood Reporter.
What was the Chautauqua event and why did you attend?
Tim Roche: We came to Chautauqua for the week. Chautauqua has a summer program that includes lectures and discussion on various topics. This week’s topic was about how housing and home has changed in America.
Abby Schwarzwalder: We go for a week every year and see people like Dan Rather and W. Kamau Bell, as well as opera and ballet performances. It’s supposed to be a sort of meditative time. It was started as a school for Sunday school teachers and it still feels kind of wholesome like that. Each week has a different theme, and Salman Rushdie was speaking about living in exile. It’s ironic because he was there to discuss protections for writers who are persecuted. It was the main event for the day and it was held in the large amphitheater which is sort of indoor-outdoor.
Where were you seated in relation to the stage and attack?
Roche: Lectures are given in an outdoor amphitheater that holds about 1000 people. My wife, in-laws and I sat in the center of the amphitheater about half way up — probably about 40 or 50 rows up.
How many people were in the room?
Roche: This was the keynote speaker of the week so the room was pretty full at the time. I’d say about 3/4 full.
What happened immediately preceding the attack?
Roche: People were just getting settled in before the lecture. Salman and the moderator received a small ovation as they came out to sit down in two chairs at the center of the stage. A third person [emerged] to introduce them both.
Could you describe the attack?
Roche: The attack was extremely surreal. At the time I had my head turned around looking to see where my wife was when I heard the woman behind me scream. When I turned around I saw a man enter from stage left dressed in mostly dark blacks and grey, swinging at Mr. Rushdie. You could see what looked like blood coming from the scrum. It seemed from my point of view that Salman, the attacker and the moderator fell past the chairs they were sitting with all three going to the ground.
That’s when the stage was swarmed with people. It seemed there was a security guard there but mostly it looked like patrons. It instantly became chaos as the attacker was pinned to the ground. Most of the action fell to the back of the stage, with a “Chautauqua” sign preventing us from seeing Mr. Rushdie.
The person who was supposed to introduce them then ran off stage to get help. The whole amphitheater was in complete shock and there were many screams of terror. Nothing like this was even thought possible. A few minutes after I thought I saw Mr. Rushdie get up and be escorted — but it turned out to be the moderator who was slightly harmed. As it turns out, Mr. Rushdie was on the ground being tended to. Soon after, another woman got on stage and tried to get people to leave calmly.
Looking back, it took me a second to fully understand what was going on. I almost thought it was a prank until I saw blood. As I said, within seconds the stage was crowded with people trying to help. After that I quickly scanned behind me to see where my wife was. She was at the top of the amphitheater. You just can’t imagine anything happening at a place like this. Safety has not been anything that has even crossed my mind there.
Schwarzwalder: The thing I remember most was how aggressive and frantic the attacker was. He was leaning over the seated Rushdie and his arm kept swinging up and coming down at him so quickly. I’ve never seen anything like it. And then they were swarmed with people. I was pretty proud of how quickly some of these old guys [in the audience] reacted. I heard one of the people who ran to Rushdie’s defense was in his 80s. The [rest of the] audience watched stunned. Some people started crying. It was so insane.
Could you describe the attacker?
Roche: As I said the attacker was dressed in dark colors — black and grey — and seemed to have a mask on.
Was anything said — by the attacker, Rushdie or others in attendance?
Roche: Many fearful screams and condemnation from the audience.
What do you remember of what followed?
Roche: We were in the room for what seemed to be about five minutes before we were asked to leave.
Did you see paramedics attend to Rushdie?
Roche: Mr. Rushdie was kept behind the signs while being attended to. We did see the helicopter come and land but never saw him being [flown out]. We had left the amphitheater by then.