A real Shawshank Redemption question

I put this in GQ because this is not a debate about the movie, but rather a question that (I think) could have a factual answer.

Andy’s escape route. Crawling 500 yards through a sewage pipe… Would this even be possible (and please don’t cite Andy falling out of the pipe as proof that it is)?

I am thinking that the toxic gasses in that pipe would become overpowering. Think about it for a moment. He is crawling through a pipe with feces, urine, vomit, blood, and other bodily fluids and god-know-what-else, to create a biological stew. There was NO air circulation in that pipe, and until Andy broke that hole into the pipe to crawl into it, there was only one place where fresh air could have entered it at all. The pipe was also relatively small in diameter, especially for what Andy had to do. There was hardly enough room for him to crawl (forget about standing, or even crouching) leaving his head close to the excrement soup and with no place to grab a gulp of fresh air.

The air that was in the pipe, even if some flushed (HAW!) in from Andy’s entrance and pushed toward the end of the pipe, could not have immediately displaced decades of nasty, ungodly fumes. But beyond that, couldn’t the methane and other gases floating in that pipe reach a toxic level? Even if it wouldn’t kill him outright by poisoning his system, wouldn’t he pass out from the bad (poisoned) air and fall into the semi-solid mess at the bottom of the pipe, and then probably suffocate and/or drown? :eek:

I am not trying to find flaws in everyone’s favorite movie… I can do that in Cafe Society. This is a serious question involving what exactly would have been in that pipe, the concentration of bad (and perhaps toxic) gas, and the real chance that anyone could have crawled 500 yards through a pipe that small in diameter with those contents.

Considering the fact that the sewer emptied into a wetland or sewer bed, as well as the time period of the story I would assume the sewer system in use was a combined system.

This would work by gravity, not pressurized, and the sewer pipes would have transported not only waste water from the prison but also all the rainwater runoff from the area. Think sewer/storm drain combo. Also the waste water from the prison isn’t just toilet water and its contents but also drained water from faucets, showers, hoses, washing machines, etc. A combined sewer drain would be regularly “flushed” out by heavy rain runoff during storms, which is what was occurring the night Andy escaped. Still nasty and dangerous though.

I’m pretty sure that even Shawshank’s sewer drains require a vent pipe to function correctly.

CMC fnord!

My thought too. Flushing toilets, draining large industrial sinks, etc - create “slugs” of water that will cause problems if the system is not vented. Anyone who’s experienced clogged or frozen vents will have seen the result - flush the toilet and it sucks the water out of the traps in nearby sinks and showers, causing a gurgling sound. In typical configuration, I imagine a constant airflow through the Shaw, up the Shank, since except hot summer days - warm in-ground or in-building air will vent through the roof vents rising in the cool surrounding air, sucking fresh air in the drain’s end in the swamp/cesspool.

I think Speak to me Maddie! is close, but I’m going to opt for a 100% storm drain scenario. While I’ll concede that sewer lines may have converged with storm drains, back when the prison was constructed (1930’s?) we knew enough not to just dump huge quantites of raw sewage into creeks. (Big rivers maybe, small creeks and roadside ditches no.)

So I always took that escape route as going through a storm drain. Not nearly as noxious as a raw sewer line. “Safe” from a health perspective? Yes, as long as you don’t have any open wounds. Even then, a decent shower or some antiseptic application within a short time should have taken care of infection vectors.

The script says explicitly that it was a sewer pipe and that it contained raw sewage.

"He approaches the ceramic sewer pipe and kneels before it.
Pulls out the rock-hammer and says a quick silent prayer.
Raises the rock-hammer high and swings it down with all his
might. Once, twice – third time lucky. An enormous eruption
of sewage cascades into the air as if rocket-propelled, the
Mount St. Helens of shit. Andy is instantly coated black. He
turns away and heaves his guts out. The shit keeps coming.

250 INT – SEWER PIPE – NIGHT (1966) 250

Andy peers down through the hole, playing his penlight aroun5,
The inside diameter is no more than two feet. Tight squeeze. 
Coated with crud. It seems to go on for miles. 

No turning back. He wriggles into the pipe and starts 
crawling, plastic bag dragging behind. "


Mmm. Biological stew!


Slight hijack - when Andy breaks into the pipe, there is a large gush of sewage that erupts from the pipe. Since the pipe isn’t under pressure and does not appear after to be completely full , why would it gush?

If the pipe actually contained what the script said and what you saw shooting out of it when Andy broke it open, then the fumes from the concentrated sewage would have caused unconsciousness or death. People die from this every year in septic tanks.

But as Speak to me Maddie! pointed out, in reality the pipe would have been combined flow (we’ll assume they really did just dump untreated sewage into the stream). The non-sewage flow and especially the heavy rainstorm would have flushed it out enough that it would be unpleasant but survivable.

Dumping untreated sewage into a waterway started falling out of favor in the 1920s, but it still took a little while for things to change. The best cite I could find was that in 1930, 46% of cities in the U.S with a population greater than 100K used dilution as the only treatment method. This would have been dumping in rivers (or the ocean) with a much greater volume than in the movie. On the other hand, this was outflow for a single prison, not a large city. On the third hand, I think it was the 1950s when Andy escaped. So I’d say it’s very unlikely they’d still be dumping untreated sewage, but it’s not impossible.

It wouldn’t. Or if it did, it would keep gushing. If it was a combined-flow pipe with all the stormwater flow, it probably would have been overloaded from the heavy rainfall and would have gushed out when broken. But in that case, the pipe would have been full and continued to gush out for a lot longer than what happened in the movie.

If this section of pipe was a low spot, and if the pipe wasn’t vented, then I guess it’s conceivable that the low spot could be filled with sewage, and gases could build up on either side of the low spot. In that case, you’d see a brief spurt like in the movie. But both those “ifs” would be extremely questionable engineering.

That prison looked a lot like the old Ohio Penitentiary in downtown Columbus that dated from the 1860’s, so the systems in that prison could have been very outdated and not up to code. Remember the warden stating that the state legislator didn’t give a damn about spending money on prisons and it wouldn’t surprise to find that big government systems like prisons didn’t get updated or required to meet new codes. Hell, they may have even taken the money for upgrades and keep it for themselves; this was Shawshank’s management philosophy MO after all.

It shouldn’t. I love the movie as a whole, but that little technical detail has always bothered me.

Well he probably would have been overcome by the various gasses inside the pipe, that is why there are OSHA confined spaces safety rules in industry now. You can enter a large tank or pipe and not be aware of the lack of breathable air until it is too late to get out.

As for being overcome by the awful stench, you get used to it very fast, it is called olfactory nerve fatigue. The olfactory nerve gets tired or over stimulated very fast when confronted with strong odors and just quits smelling them or registers them at a very reduced rate.


When I was young I worked at a reduction plant, a place where all the god awful parts of animals go to be processed into something usable like meal or oil. Monday mornings, standing in a pool of fish guts and ‘active rice’ (maggots) were pretty rough at first, by 10:00 break you could sit down next to it and eat your sandwich.

Later when I moved into management and became closely involved with pet food flavors and attractants was when I learned about olfactory fatigue. You simply cannot sniff sample after sample for long and learn anything, your nose gets tired. Although I was not one, there are actually professional noses, people whose main business talent is to distinguish smells. They can only do so much at a time and need to take a break. The Wiki link mainly describes the problem with wine tasting but it applies to anything you taste or smell. Nose gets tired fast.

You might think that having a job shoveling shit would be intolerable, but only the first 15 minutes or so are the bad part.

Isn’t there one camera shot of Andy in the pipe and the liquid is relatively still? If it was a storm drain, wouldn’t the flow be rapidly outward? If he didn’t drown or get stuck (or get stuck and then drown), Andy might be able to rapidly “surf” to the outlet in relatively clean rainwater.

If it’s just a sewage line, I’m not sure why it would be half-full at all.

Good movie but the mechanics of the escape don’t quite work.

Close, it was the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield. Had family that lived in Mansfield, and on a visit they had to show me that that was where Shawshank was filmed.

This article discuses the safety procedures and dangers. I suspect Andy would suffer a similar death in that prison sewer.

Drained water from sinks, showers, and washing machines could still contain nasty stuff, but it would be significantly diluted. Have you ever started up a washing machine and then stuck your hand in to the water/detergent mix to pull something back out? That mixture already contains a sample of whatever crap was on your clothes - sweat, dirt, and all the other stuff. Did it hurt?

On the fourth hand, this was an underfunded prison in rural Maine where the warden was continually stealing maintenance money. Not exactly where you’d expect to find the cutting edge of sanitary sewer technology.

So, it’s a plausible explanation to assume the main stretch is some kind of combined pipe. We’ll have to assume the rainstorm that night isn’t actually a very big one, so the pipe isn’t too full (i.e. there’s still airspace). We can then let the pipe near Andy’s room to be more or less straight sewage as long as it joins the much larger combined pipe soon enough. And let the violently erupting sewage be a bit of exaggeration.

At which point, now we’re only left with wondering why the primary sewage drain from the prison is running through a wall on the first (or higher?) floor, instead of underneath the basement (or at least far enough underground to be below frost heaves).
isn’t running below the basement

And then, if it’s safe, they go down into it. I worked with a man who earned living money in college by working as a casual sewer-repairer. In his European City sewers, the sewerage ran with the storm water in brick-lined tunnels. After the first hundred years or so, occasionally the brick work needed repair. The employer liked using casuals, because they’d go in, replace a few bricks, and get out as fast as possible. Not like the regulars, who’d go down and make a day of it.

The real reason it gushed is because it made his escape more interesting to follow (it’s unexpected and happens during a tense moment). It’s a better visual to see him get splashed in shit than to just watch him lower himself in clean. Then it’s bad enough when you’re rooting for him to escape to see him splashed in shit, but now you realize it’s about to get even worse.