Katie Honan and Jose Martinez, THE CITY
A gunman first using a smoke-grenade shot 10 subway riders on a Brooklyn N train Tuesday morning, officials said, in the latest high-profile horror in a subway system still struggling to win back riders.
The shots — initially reported as an “unusual loud noise” in an internal MTA alert — rang out at 8:23 a.m. at the 36th Street stop in Sunset Park as panicked commuters escaped the Manhattan-bound train, with some collapsing on the smoky station platform.
A manhunt is on for the assailant, who witnesses said was wearing a gas mask and a green construction vest and gray hoodie.
“This is an active shooter situation right now in the city of New York,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said during a briefing at the scene a few hours after the attack.
John Butsikaras, 15, was on his way to Brooklyn Tech from Bay Ridge when the conductor emptied the train at 25th Street, where he saw injured passengers on the platform, he said.
“It was all crowded, people didn’t know what was going on,” he told THE CITY. “It was a scary moment.”
Mayor Eric Adams, who is restricted to Gracie Mansion with COVID, vowed that police would find the gunman, who was described as 5-foot-5, Black and with a heavy build. He asked for help from New Yorkers with tracking the shooter down through photographs or videos.
“Trust me when I tell you, we’re going to find this person and we’re going to bring him to justice,” Adams told NY1.
First Deputy Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said 16 victims were hospitalized, including five who were in critical but stable condition. She said in addition to the 10 gunshot wounds, others suffered from smoke inhalation, shrapnel wounds and panic.
In the midday news conference, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said the shooting was not being investigated as an act of terrorism but described a harrowing scene in which the gunman donned a gas mask on the train before taking out a canister out of a bag.
“The train at that time began to fill with smoke,” Sewell said. “He then opened fire, striking multiple people.”
Sewell said it’s under investigation if security cameras in the station were working. Later in an interview on WCBS 880 radio, the mayor said the surveillance on the platform was “malfunctioning.” The MTA last year finished installing cameras in all 472 stations.
Officials said the man was wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt, along with a construction-type vest. Some witnesses had initially said it looked like he was wearing an MTA uniform.
“A vest, you can get anywhere, but a uniform, that’s different because you have to go to the union hall and get fitted,” a veteran MTA worker told THE CITY. “If it’s an MTA uniform, it could be an ex-employee, family of an ex employee or an employee.”
Videos posted to social media showed riders scrambling out of the train as smoke began to rise in the station.
Hochul noted those riders had, moments earlier, been “en route to school, en route to their jobs and into a normal day.”
“That sense of tranquility and normalness was disrupted, brutally disrupted by an individual so coldhearted and depraved of heart that they had no caring about the individuals that they assaulted as they simply went about their daily lives,” she said.
Nowhere Near Normal
The violence during the morning commute again highlighted the struggles faced by the city and the transit system entering year three of a devastating pandemic.
“We want to get back to normal,” Hochul said. “It has been a long, hard two years — that’s what we crave, stability and normalcy.”
The MTA last week recorded five straight weekdays of more than 3 million trips, a shade below 60% of pre-pandemic ridership. But the transit agency is also struggling to win back riders amid concerns about crime, a rise in assaults and the January pushing death of Michelle Go from a platform at the Times Square-42nd Street station.
Lisa Daglian of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA said the shooting at the Sunset Park hub on the F, N and R lines “likely will be a step back” for a system that has been battered by the pandemic and concerns over crime.
“What has to happen is there has to be an oncoming commitment to making the subway safe and combating the day-to-day crime and the very scary, very real situation that we’ve seen today,” Daglian told THE CITY. “I believe we’ve seen that commitment.”
Adams and Hochul in January announced plans to put more police officers into the subway system and in February rolled out the plan designed to curb homelessness on trains and in stations, while enforcing the MTA’s code of conduct.
“We are continuing our mission as the ridership returns, hopefully to normalcy soon,” Jason Wilcox, the NYPD Transit Chief said at last month’s MTA committee meetings. “Not just to keep the ridership safe, but to make them feel safe.”
MTA Chairman Janno Lieber had said at last month’s board meeting that those efforts have begun to yield results for riders.
“While by no means are we out of the woods — and there is a lot of progress that needs to be made on subway safety — I just want to acknowledge that the work has begun,” Lieber said. “A serious effort is underway.”
On Tuesday, Lieber credited subway riders for being “incredibly resilient.”
“We saw New Yorkers in a difficult situation, in an emergency, helping each other,” Lieber said. “That’s the subway riders, that’s who New Yorkers are.”
‘I Will Continue to Take the Subway’
Henry Mautner, 33, an owner of Minnie’s Bar on Fourth Avenue near 33rd Street, said he usually takes the D train to work.
When he heard what happened this morning he was first worried about his staff and his customers. But he said it doesn’t make him fearful to ride the trains.
“I think I will continue to take the subways. It’s obviously a terrible thing but I think it’s just unlucky that it happened here,” he said. “I will continue to take the subway — maybe not today.”
Tony Utano, the president of Transport Workers Local 100, called the shooting “a shocking and horrible burst of violence in our transit system” and said anti-crime efforts need to be stepped up.
“We need to fix this crime thing, otherwise this will happen again,” he told THE CITY. “When there is a war, you go down with your forces to where the war is.”
MTA employees received a notice from Patrick Warren, the agency’s chief safety officer, saying no transit employees have been reported injured. The memo also thanked train crews who “acted quickly to get our riders off trains and evacuated to safety.”
A veteran train operator said crews have procedures to follow when faced with unruly riders or violence while in transit.
“You call the rail control center, get the train into a station, open the doors and hope it doesn’t get any worse,” the transit worker told THE CITY. “They’re responsible for the passenger safety, but also their own safety. It’s got to be a harrowing situation.”
In Tuesday morning’s attack, a MTA worker on the intercom at the 36th Street station instructed victims to get on an R train, which took them to 25th Street.
“I think it was a good cool-headed move by that person,” Joe Giacalone, a former NYPD detective and now a professor of police science at John Jay College told THE CITY. “Those metal doors can provide some safety so that he can’t get access to them. So I’ll definitely say that it was a good move.”subwa
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