Exit Strategy

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

That locking system illustrates the obvious: In a subway disaster, coordination would be crucial. Enter the controversial Citywide Incident Management System (CIMS), faulted by some fire officials for putting the police in charge at scenes of terrorist attacks involving hazardous materials. In subway incidents, CIMS calls for a unified command embracing city and state agencies. That won't work, says Vallone. "We couldn't even figure it out in the antiseptic atmosphere of the City Council chambers," he says of the CIMS subway protocol. "I believe one agency should always be in charge, and it should never be decision making by committee."

The May 2004 OEM drill used the unified command. Bernstein says, "It was definitely a learning experience." He adds that the latest version of CIMS was updated to take into account the lessons learned from things like the subway drill and real events like the July 2003 York Street station fire, in which there were problems evacuating riders.

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

At rush hour, some 2,080 people could conceivably be on a packed A or D train—roughly equal to the combined passenger load of four Airbus 380 airliners. So the potential for casualty and calamity in even a single station or train is steep. But the toll of any subway attack would extend beyond the impact zone. "The huge fear is not just loss of life but that somebody would destroy a tunnel and put a subway line out for years," says Straphangers Campaign executive director Gene Russianoff, pointing out that the last subway tunnel constructed took 20 years to build.

The problem in a major subway outage is not just one of economic impact: How would you get emergency workers to their jobs? How would ambulances and fire trucks move in a city choked with the cars of drivers chased from the subway? Because the New York City subway evolved as three separate systems, there are certain redundancies built in. But while backups could take the overflow, life would be far from normal.

"The mass transit system is the lifeblood of the city," says Lee Sander, who served as transportation commissioner under Rudy Giuliani. "The city cannot function in the medium and long term without this system, and on a short-term basis it's extremely difficult."

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