Geraldo Rivera breaks down in tears recalling horrific 'smell, sound and sight' of Willowbrook institution

Geraldo Rivera broke down in tears Tuesday on an episode of Fox Nation's "Deep Dive" as he recalled the sickening neglect and abuse he exposed at New York's Willowbrook State School back in 1972.

The ill-equipped, disease-ridden Staten Island facility housed more than 6,000 developmentally and physically disabled children and had been in operation since 1947.

"There was one attendant for perhaps 50 profoundly and severely retarded children [who were] lying on the floor, naked and smeared with their own feces," recalled Rivera. "They were making a pitiful yell," recalled Rivera.

"It smelled of filth, it smelled of disease and it smelled of death," he continued. "The sound, the smell, the sights of it is something that is branded on my soul."

Rivera, then a young reporter for New York's WABC-TV, is largely credited with exposing the horrors at the facility. His new Fox Nation documentary series "I am Geraldo: 50 Years" features rare footage from Willowbrook that shows children sitting on the floor wailing and shaking back and forth.

"It smelled of filth, it smelled of disease and it smelled of death. The sound, the smell, the sights of it is something that is branded on my soul."

— Geraldo Rivera, Fox Nation

"That sound, the mournful wail that the kids were making is the soundtrack of my nightmares," Rivera said through tears. "...I still have a hard time with that."

Vanessa Dacenzo, the daughter of a Willowbrook resident, joined Rivera in the episode and detailing her mother's lasting trauma after she spent more than 16 years at the facility.

"My mom had what would be now diagnosed as motor and speech delays, but back in the 1950s, the way the medical community would look at it was very different," she explained. "If they could not find anything physically wrong that was causing it, then the assumption was made that it was something mental."

Dacenzo's mother was admitted as a "patient" before her third birthday and was released at the age of 19 when she was finally adopted by foster parents. Although she merely suffered from a speech delay, Dacenzo said her mother was grouped with children suffering from far more severe disabilities.

Dacenzo said she began to research her mother's time at Willowbrook when she attended the College of Staten Island, whose campus was located on the grounds of the since-closed facility that had traumatized her mother years earlier.

"It was the most horrifying thing I had ever seen in my life."

— Geraldo Rivera, Fox Nation

"A lot of things that I had noted about her started to make much more sense," she said. "Her fear of going to the dentist, for example, I didn't think anything of it but I [now] understood it ... they would work on the children without using any anesthetic and she's still afraid to this day."

"It was the most horrifying thing I had ever seen in my life," Rivera concluded, "and I think it was the most horrifying thing anyone outside of a [Nazi] concentration camp had seen."

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Fox News' Matt London contributed to this report.