Exit Strategy

When it comes to subways and terrorism, the best defense might be a good escape

Edward J. Leary was not trained at a camp in Afghanistan and didn't espouse a radical Islamic worldview, but that didn't stop him from bombing the New York City subway system in 1994. He injured 48 people in two attacks six days apart by using explosive devices made of mayonnaise jars and kitchen timers. Even if the war on terrorism achieves total victory, there will always be Edward Learys able to attempt mass murder on the subway with nothing but a MetroCard, a backpack, and a grudge.

It may still be unclear who bombed London's Underground last week or why, but as far as the risks to New York's subterranean passengers go, it doesn't really matter: The threat to subways is about infrastructure, not ideology.

"All subway systems are by nature open systems. You don't go through metal detectors. You don't get frisked," says Robert Passwell, a City University of New York professor and transit expert. "It's got to be open because the commerce of the city depends on people being able to move freely." Not only is New York's an open system, it's huge, with 468 stations along 660 miles of track serving 7 million riders daily on 27 lines.

Blast aftershock: Heightened security at Penn Station the day of the London bombings
photo: Cary Conover
Blast aftershock: Heightened security at Penn Station the day of the London bombings

The good news is that given that size, the chances that your particular subway train will get hit during the specific time you are on it are fairly slim. The downside: While preventing terrorism is tricky anywhere, averting an attack on an open system as big as New York's is extremely tough. Saving subway riders from terrorism, then, is about surviving an attack as much as stopping one in progress. Simply put, people have to get out.

That doesn't mean you can't try to prevent an attack; you can, and some steps are elementary.

"There are still trash cans in New York subways, and you wonder why," says Passwell, noting that bins and benches are convenient places for hiding bombs. More mirrors around corners, wider use of surveillance cameras, going back to a separate Transit Police force, and even reducing the number of homeless people who live in the stations and tunnels might help, he says.

The terrorist threat to subways isn't a post-9-11 concept. Besides Leary's bombings, there were the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo and the 1997 arrest of two men for plotting to bomb the Atlantic Avenue station in Brooklyn. But the 2001 World Trade Center attacks brought a once distant threat up close and personal, with the nos. 1 and 9 lines sustaining major damage and a breach in the Port Authority Trans-Hudson tunnel almost flooding the subway system.

In late 2001, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and outside experts identified 57 long-term security needs. (Their nature is secret for security reasons.) Under its 2000–2004 capital plan, the agency planned to spend about $600 million on the first 24 of them, but only about $200 million worth of that work has gone forward. The new MTA capital plan, which covers 2005 to 2009 and is awaiting approval, devotes $495 million more to the 33 other security tasks, but says no funding source has been secured.

"They need to move quicker. There's no sense of urgency," City Council transportation committee chairman John Liu tells the Voice. Among the things that money could be used for, Liu says, are protecting key components like relay rooms, securing ventilation shafts, and improving communications systems on trains and platforms. "The fact that one in four subway announcements are still unintelligible, that's a bad sign," he says. "That's not a sign of being ready for emergencies."

The MTA is trying to increase public awareness of risk, with its "if you see something, say something" campaign, as well as new instructions on evacuation procedures on the agency's website. The obvious question is whether anyone is paying attention. Another is whether rescue workers are ready for a subway crisis.

An Office of Emergency Management drill last year involved a mock subway disaster, and while OEM—citing security concerns—won't give the Voice any after-action reports that might have detailed shortcomings the drill exposed, spokesman Jarrod Bernstein says the drill "definitely took a lot of steps forward in terms of below-grade communications and interoperability." This included the use of a crate-sized computer that can fuse 15 different radio frequencies and even a phone line onto one conference call, allowing cops, firefighters, federal agents, and others to talk to one another. And since one of the challenges in a subway emergency is that frightened commuters are racing up the same stairs that rescuers need to go down, "we actually placed 100 people on the stairs and told them to stay there, to get in the way," Bernstein says.

But would riders even make it to the stairs? In many subway exits, the only way out is through a floor-to-ceiling revolving gate, called a High Entry/Exit Turnstile (HEET). "If there was an incident in the subway and a large number of people were trying to exit a station that had these HEETs, it would most likely result in a major disaster," City Council public safety committee chairman Peter Vallone Jr. says. "The only way to get out these gates is one at a time." As a state agency, the MTA is exempt from New York City building codes, but if those rules did apply, HEETs might violate the code if they were the only exits from a particular area of a station. There are other emergency exits in stations, but they are locked. The Fire Department of New York has keys to the outside lock, while the cops can open it from the inside.

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