A Fort Worth couple and their friends witnessed the attack Friday on author Salman Rushdie during a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. 

Rushdie suffered stab wounds to the neck and chest, according to the New York State Police, which is investigating the attack. According to the Associated Press, the 75-year-old writer is on a ventilator with a damaged liver, severed nerves in an arm and may lose an eye.

Mary Dulle, a retired public relations professional, and her husband, Joe Dulle, of Fort Worth, were attending the event with friends Jane Schlansker and Dorothy Dickmann. 

Schlansker said Saturday that  everyone was in shock. 

“It’s truly horrible,” said Jane Schlansker, CEO and president of Fort Worth’s InterStar Public Relations.  “Last night, I just sat for a long period of time thinking that, and then I woke up in the middle of the night … and the magnitude of what happened is just so unexpected and so wrong.”

Dulle was settling into her seat when the attack occurred. Rushdie and moderator Ralph Reese had just sat in their chairs for the conversation. The moderator was just starting his introductions.

“I looked up and I saw this man racing across the stage, and I mean, he was racing,” Mary Dulle said. “He was really, really rushing. He grabbed onto Mr. Rushdie, and he was making these motions like he was either punching or stabbing.” 

Rushdie was speaking at the institution’s summer lecture series with the theme “More Than Shelter,” to discuss the United States as an “asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression,” according to the institute’s website.

The grounds at the Chautauqua Institute in New York. (Photo by Jane Schlansker)

Dulle said she couldn’t see what the man had in his hand from where she was seated. Rushdie then struggled out of his seat and people started rushing up from the audience to help. 

Dulle said Rushdie fell to the floor behind a screen and the moderator ran to the backstage area and came out with items like towels and napkins. 

“I presume that was to stop the bleeding, but that’s my presumption,” she said. 

According to the New York State Police, a man from Fairview, New Jersey, Hadi Matar, 24, was arrested for attempted murder and assault.  Attendees and event officials held the suspect and a state trooper assigned to the event was next to the stage and took the suspect into custody, according to the state police. 

Dulle said the amphitheater was evacuated. They were staying in a house directly next to the amphitheater where the event occurred, so they were able to see the law enforcement response. 

“Later, I found out that they had evacuated the building because they were afraid of the fellow having a bomb in his backpack,” she said. 

According to the state police, no explosive device was found.

Schlansker said they could see a number of vehicles from different agencies arriving at the scene. 

“They cordoned off the area in yellow crime scene tape, and we could see all of that,” said Schlansker. 

Rushdie is an Indian-born British-American author who has written several bestsellers. After his book, “The Satanic Verses,” was published in 1988, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an edict calling for Rushdie’s death. Iran’s government has since distanced from that decree, but he has still been under threat for his writings, according to the Los Angeles Times

Mary and Joe Dulle at the Chautauqua Institute. (Photo courtesy of Mary Dulle)

In 1991, a Japanese translator of “The Satanic Verses” was attaked and killed in a still unsolved murder, according to The New York Times. 

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, an organization dedicated to protecting authors’ rights, issued a statement in response to the attack on Rushdie, who is a former president of the group.

““We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil,” she said in the statement. 

Dulle and her husband have been coming to the Chautauqua Institution for many years. 

“We can’t really remember how long it has been,” she said. “It’s been a long time.” 

Mary Dulle has taught a course at TCU for the Silver Frogs program on the Chautauqua Institution, calling it a “Summer Camp for Adults.”  

Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874 by inventor Lewis Miller and Methodist Bishop John Heyl Vincent.  It has since become a place for education focusing on the arts, education, recreation and religion. It consists of 750 acres on Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York. About 7,500 people attend the nine-week summer season.  

Safety was rarely a concern at Chautauqua, Dulle said. 

“It is such a remote and safe place, you don’t really think about it. ” she said. 

 It is also a place that welcomes differing points of view, she said. 

“They might not always agree, they might not always accept each other’s opinions, but they’re respectful of them,” she said. “It’s very seldom you’ll hear an audience booing. They listen with open minds and open hearts.”

She said the attacker would have had to go through security to get into the venue.  

“It was a ticketed event, and you have to go through the gates to get into Chautauqua, so there are some measures for security,” said Dulle. 

Schlansker said she was amazed at the number of people who scrambled to help as soon as they saw something was wrong. 

“That’s the nature of Chautauqua,” she said. “People really want to help each other.” 

Dulle said a friend emailed her Friday night to check on her. 

“She said, ‘Mary, whenever I’m in troubled times in my mind, I have this safe place I go, and it’s the dunes overlooking Lake Michigan where I used to sit with my collie when I was kid. And in my mind, I go back there. I hope you have a safe place.’

“And I said, ‘Well, it was Chautauqua. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ “

Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at bob.francis@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Bob Francis

Bob Francis is business editor for fortworthreport.org. He has been covering business news locally and nationally for many years. He can be reached at bob.francis@fortworthreport.org