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

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Steven Thrasher
This brother with the gas mask scared the shit out of everyone
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.

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Steven Thrasher
FDNY evacuating passengers

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.

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Steven Thrasher
At Bowling Green station

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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Steven Thrasher
sthrasher@villagevoice.com | @steven_thrasher


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17 comments
Brneyes672002
Brneyes672002

Hi Steven, I was a passenger on this train that night. I was actually in the first car. It was scary. It also made me reflect. There was an explosion  beneath the train, then you saw the flash of blue light. The first and second car filled up with smoke rather quickly. We all just stared at each other not really saying a word. Some people did start joking but mainly it was to keep us calm.  The guy who put on the face mask  was pretty alarming. The wait and the way MTA handled the situation was really not acceptable. The confused conductor who clearly did not have any clue. I would like to thank the motor man who really did more and stepped off the train and went beyond to try and find out what had happened. I knew you was a reporter you sat on the floor an started typing away. I was one of the last passengers to board the rescue train. I sat in front of you. The lady next to you  who was having trouble breathing was fine.She, myself and the gentleman with the green sweatshirt in your picture actually walked to the station boarded the #2 train back to Brooklyn.We kept each other company.To be honest I was more concerned when we left the firemen behind. It broke my heart because all I could think of was 9-11. The bottom line is : People can say what they want about New Yorkers however, at the end of the day WE ALL LOOKED OUT FOR EACH OTHER.

Ajit Jagdale
Ajit Jagdale

I was also on this train last night.  Thanks for your account,  Mine is slightly different, slightly less scary, partly because we didn't have a guy with a gas mask in our car.  Instead, we had some crazy woman, who had been making ridiculous remarks long before we had stopped in the tunnels.  Her continued remarks not only made us pause and reflect, but they also injected some humor into the situation.  It's as if her voicing of the anxieties we were feeling provided us with some immediate catharisis.

candide08
candide08

LIRR riders are trapped on trains for 4, 6 or more hours - several times per year.No rescue, no evacuation, no bathrooms.

Lauren_nyc24
Lauren_nyc24

Damn!  Glad you and the rest of the passengers are safe but it's nice to have a first-hand account from a journalist on this! 

klingsor
klingsor

Great report. This happened to me in Boston, almost exactly. The train lurched to a halt in a tunnel and the car instantly filled with thick smoke. Terrifying. We sat for a shorter time than you did, with no announcements at all. Several people crouched near the floor. Others pretended nothing was wrong and buried their faces in books or newspapers. After about 30 min, the car slowly pulled into a station. I was never so glad to see that ugly platform. We were never given any explanation or apology for this incident.

David Factor
David Factor

Scary stuff. This happened to me on a Sunday night in 2003 (maybe 04?) on an uptown F somewhere under the West Village. We were halted on the tracks for what seemed to be 30 minutes when I SAW something explode out of the window. It looked and sounded like a series of small quick flashy explosions.  I freaked out in my head.  Then, someone pulled the emergency break like an asshole.Before that, the only communication from the conductor was "There is something on the tracks and we will be moving shortly."The train filled with smoke and the conductor started yelling for everyone to run to the front of the train but there was only so much room before we couldn't go any further.  Eventually, firefighters arrived and pried open the doors and we had to walk down the pitch black tunnel next to the train before taking a ladder up and out of a sidewalk grate in the middle of the West Village with several restaurants staring at us and more emergency vehicles then I have ever seen.  I was so freaked out that I walked to 1st ave and took the bus.There was a short blurb in the paper the next day, and I think it said that a homeless person threw a fire extinguisher on the track.

ronsliver
ronsliver

Plenty of people spoke to each other on the trian.

e&s
e&s

I was on the car.  To add to the above post, it was really scary that the conductor knew so little and spoke such broken English.  As far as I could tell, he was the only MTA worker.  It smelled like smoke in the bowling green station before this train, and the train before it (which was a Last-Stop-Bowling Green 5), left the station.  But for whatever reason, this put no one, passengers or MTA workers on alert.  For me, the most frustrating thing was once we got on the new train to return to bowling green, an MTA worker got on the PA and said "Due to a train in front of us we will be returning to bowling green."  Yeah right, that guy should be a politician. I need to find out what happened . . . 

Rachel
Rachel

I was on there too.. Terrifying looking up, seeing smoke everywhere, having people yell to close the doors and windows and not knowing what's going on or what to do. We had a woman in our car who kept singing and yelling "someone will be held responsible". So eerie. I'm thankful we are all safe <3

edroso
edroso

They're gonna start calling you "Get-the-story" Thrasher.

LAguy323
LAguy323

Thank you for the suspenseful account of your ordeal, Steven. Experiencing this kind of event, with a group of people one has never met before, is somewhat special in New York City. Oddly, this story makes me miss living there even more. Glad that you and everyone else survived the unexpected underground adventure. Peace ☺

Steven W. Thrasher
Steven W. Thrasher

Thank you for sharing this. It was an unsettling experience, but you are correct - we as New Yorkers were calm, patient, and kind with each other. There wasn't any panic in my car, nor during the evacuation. I am glad to hear the three of you kept each other company on your journey home. If you can, drop me a line at sthrasher@villagevoice.com.

Steven W. Thrasher
Steven W. Thrasher

It's fascinating to hear different accounts from different cars. From what I can surmise, we in the front of the train (I was in the second car) had the most smoke, and it cleared as you moved towards the back of the train. The fellow with the gas mask was also a disorienting factor. 

Steven W. Thrasher
Steven W. Thrasher

Thanks for pointing out that detail. I do recall hearing the same thing about the train in front of us, as if he hadn't just been ON that train stuck in the tunnel, and forgot to put it in.  The comedy of it didn't quite register with me at that second.

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