New York

On Being Trapped Under the East River On the 4 Train, as Our Car Filled With Smoke [VIDEO]


I was on the Brooklyn-bound 4 train tonight which experienced an as of yet unexplained explosion. The following is what I wrote on my laptop, largely unedited, as it happened.

9:30 (ish)— This was written somewhere under the East River, on the 4 train. I hope someone reads this someday (preferably while I’m still alive). About a minute after pulling out of Bowling Green station at full speed, I felt a bump. Hearing a “pfizz,” the train came to a halt.

Had we hit something? Had someone pulled the emergency cord?

I realized that we were underwater. I’m not normally a claustrophobic type, but I suddenly felt very nervous, and we were under a few hundred (thousand?) feet of water.

Then, the car started to fill with smoke.

It was the most frightening thing I’d ever experienced.

The man next to me pulled out a gas mask and winked at me. I had the terrifying feeling that every time I’d made fun of terrorism being overblown was going to come back to haunt me.

“It’s OK,” he said. “I work in construction.”

I found this not particularly likely or reassuring.

The smoke got thicker, and people started to panic, slightly. The “ping ping” of the subway’s PA system went off but wasn’t followed by a voice.

The smoke got thicker. Nervous laughter turned to muffled groans. Several people, me included, dropped to the floor and covered our faces with cloth. Somewhere this came back to me from elementary school. (Stop, drop, and roll, right?)

I starting to think through the past day. It had been my first day in Manhattan in many weeks with neither a surgical boot or cane. Had I told anyone I loved them? Did anyone even know where I was, or when I should be home? (The latter was a no; I couldn’t recall the former.)

Why had I stopped by Occupy Wall Street tonight, and gotten on this train?

Why the fuck hadn’t I used the bathroom?!?

Someone opened the car door. “Shut the door! Shut the door!” others in the car yelled. “You’re letting in more smoke!”

It was true. The smoke wasn’t coming from another car, but from the tunnel, its source unclear.

I don’t know when I realized it, but the train’s exhaust system had stopped working. Silence punctuated between people’s spare words.

I tried to recall the last thing I’d said to my boyfriend. I thought about my parents.

A child started to cry. She looked five, maybe six. Her mother said: “Don’t worry about this. Just put this over your mouth and breathe. Let us worry about everything else.”

Finally, the PA’s “ping-ping” produced a voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re trying to get assistance. Please be patient.”

It wasn’t recorded, but was delivered by a completely unconvincing live voice that didn’t instill patience or confidence.

I realized how at the mercy I am at these conductors’ voices. I started wondering if the floor felt warm. I heard someone else voice the same concern. But I’m not normally sitting on the subway floor. Was that its normal heat level? Were we feeling the heat from an actual fire?

Finally, a conductor arrived, a large black man with long dreads under a huge hat. He was being mobbed by people asking him questions. It appeared he didn’t know anything more than anyone else. There was unintelligible gibberish spewing from his walkie-talkie.

“Give me five minutes,” he pleaded.

When he passed through the car doors, someone poked their head out. “The smoke is in the tunnel. Something’s still on fire,” they said.

I’m thinking that I need to breathe slowly. I’m thinking back on how, earlier in the day, I’d thought how I should start reading Buddhist teachings to help control my thoughts. (Would have been handy if I’d thought of this earlier. Didn’t my sister give me a copy of a Thich Nhat Hanh book a couple of Christmases ago?)

Four minutes later, someone cursed the conductor, saying “He’s got one minute left!”

Then the air ventilation came back on. It was a welcome sound. The smoke started to clear a little. People started to breathe a little deeper. The small child started crying harder.

“Shhh, go to sleep,” her mother said.

An announcement came on that we should move to areas with less smoke. But which way was that? The most smoke was between cars, and opening the doors let more in. Should we move forward or back? Everyone in my car stayed still, many of us covering our faces. Several of us were still on the floor, but several were standing, and one (a guy who said he’d just moved to New York this week) was joking. I couldn’t read if it was out of bravado or sincerity.

The man with the gas mask came and went from our car. Everyone watched his every move with suspicion.

Eventually the conductor returned, only to leave our car through a side door, disappearing into the dark tunnel.

Finally, as the smoke started to clear, an announcement came on that another train would be coming to rescue us, and we’d have to transfer onto it — back toward Manhattan.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had sworn off subways for the night. Cab drivers will make a killing wherever we get out —

If we get out. (9:53 PM)

10:14 — Some of the more eventful moments I’ve ever had in the New York City subway system.

Finally, it was announced that the “rescue train” had come to get us, which would take us back to Manhattan. I must have been on the next to the first car of train, putting me at the end of the line.

In a completely orderly fashion, we evacuated the train. People held the door for each other. It was pretty quiet. Given that rescue was eminent, people took out their cell phones and starting taking pictures. (I started writing earlier when I realized my iPhone was dead, and I plugged it into the my laptop and got to work, perhaps hoping that if I did die, I would go practicing my vocation on the job, just as my father had.)

For whatever reason, I ended being the next to the last person on the entire train getting off. There was a putrid, acrid, smokey smell passing between each car, like a hundred soldering torches were lit.

When we finally got to go to the rescue train, the gap between the two was about a foot. MTA workers were telling us to watch the gap. Three firefighters were there, getting ready to investigate the “explosion” and needing to put out the fire, whose location wasn’t certain.

What caused the explosion was unclear, too. It sounded like it was under the train — the train had hit something, and that something was either between the wheels and the track or under the train, near the car where I had been. Each car had gotten less smokey as we’d moved away from the front.

The firefighers reported a head count of 457 evacuated passengers. There was some discussion about who would rescue the firefighters, once the rescue train pulled away. They were going to stay on the dead train and put out the fire, and we were to be evacuated. An MTA worker did a final sweep and made sure everyone was evacuated.

A radio call came in: leave the FDNY there to fight the fire/investigate its cause, deliver the passengers to Bowling Green, then return for the FDNY.

Two more firefighters came in. Many people — myself included — said thank you and had long faces saying goodbye to them.
I didn’t like the idea that they were staying under the East River with smoke, unknown conditions, and no quick way out, and we were leaving them.

Finally, our train prepared for escape. The passenger quickly reverted to New Yorkers who were more pissed off that they’d have to transfer to another line (the 4/5 tunnel is out until the fire and explosion are solved and the dead train is moved), seemingly forgetting how scared everyone had been a half-hour before.

The train finally started to mild applaud. It was a rickety, and very slow, trip back to the station.

No one spoke the whole trip, and there was a visible tension each of the many times the train came to a complete halt.

10:25 — Train finally comes into Bowling Green. FDNY brass are waiting to greet us. I overhear on radios that there are no reported injuries; however, ambulances are on standby. A lady next to me says she is having trouble breathing and will seek medical help.

10:26 — Another passenger sees me talking to the FDNY and says, “Aha! I knew you were with the newspaper.” #guiltyascharged

10:27 — The FDNY brass has no further information about what caused the “explosion,” when the five firefighters will return, nor when 4 or 5 service will resume. I thank the FDNY for rescuing us, and go outside, where emergency trucks are waiting.

New York City air never tasted so good to breathe in.

Updated: MTA Responds to 4 Train “Smoke Condition,” Says Cause is “Still Under Investigation”

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