Copyright 1994 Gannett Company, Inc.  


December 22, 1994, Thursday, FIRST EDITION


LENGTH: 1204 words

HEADLINE: Subway blast hurts 43 / 'Brave' riders fight blaze with coats

BYLINE: Dottie Enrico; David Lieberman; Andrea Stone



Broadway bulged with firetrucks, ambulances and stretchers. Burned and panicked people gasped into oxygen masks. The mayor arrived. The media swarmed.

But the disarray above ground Wednesday afternoon only hinted at the chaos below.

Moments after a firebomb exploded on a lower Manhattan subway car packed with holiday shoppers, "there were people running and trampling, it was mayhem," says Bennett Fischtal, a rider in the next car.

"There was one woman, she came running out. Her jacket was on fire, her pants were on fire, her hair was on fire," he says. "We had knocked her to the ground and there were people swatting her with their packages, their jackets, and there was a lot of fire."

Though not nearly as severe as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which killed six and injured 1,000, Wednesday's devastation on the No. 4 IRT train made clear the amount of damage and disruption even a small bomb could produce.

Passengers ran crying and screaming up onto the street. Left behind in the subway car, a basketball-size burn seared on its exterior, were an assortment of purses, briefcases and Christmas packages, each later X-rayed by the bomb squad.

Bits of charred clothes dotted the station, where 50,000 passengers a day board eight subway lines in a main transfer stop between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

"The ground started shaking. I knew something bad had happened," says Renee Harris, a shopper who was headed for the No. 4 train but was delayed. "God was with me."

Below ground were scenes of terror - and heroism.

"I got two people in flames, laying on the floor of the train," says off-duty transit police officer Denfield Otto, 54, who was on the train when the fire broke out. "Some brave passengers took off their coats and tried to beat back the flames."

City officials praise the quick-thinking Otto, who was on his way to police choir practice, for grabbing a fire extinguisher from a token booth to put out the blaze. He says he heard a small series of popping sounds about 15 seconds before a larger explosion rocked the subway car.

Asked at a City Hall press conference whether he was a hero, the baritone shook his head. "I only did my job."

The bomb went off just as the train stopped in the Fulton Street station and opened its doors. Transit Police spokesman Albert O'Leary says the doors opened, then there was a pop, then flames, then a second pop and more flames.

"All I heard was yelling and everyone saying, 'Get off the train now!' " says passenger Chaya Abelsky, who says people jumped over turnstiles to escape. "There was a tremendous amount of smoke."

Even those accustomed to such scenes were struck.

"It's something I won't forget. . . . A lot of people were stunned," says firefighter Frank Henglein. "When I got to the subway car, the walls and the floor were charred. I saw burnt Christmas packages on the floor. The light fixtures melted."

But the human toll was far worse.

"It's horrible seeing people burnt like that," says Henglein, who saw people scorched through their clothes to charred cartilage and bone. "All that we could do was comfort them."

Nerlande Estimphil was Christmas shopping when she saw victims stagger to the street. One teen-age girl, her hair and face burned, sat on the ground chanting, "Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus," Estimphil says.

Dozens of people were taken to nearby hospitals, all for burns and smoke inhalation. At New York Downtown Hospital, staff cleared the cafeteria to ensure room for victims.

Police were waiting to question one injured passenger found in a Brooklyn subway station after the fire. Edward Leary of Scotch Plains, N.J., had both pants legs scorched off to the knee and burns on his face, knuckles and legs, say the officers who found him.

Is Leary considered a suspect in the firebombing? Says police spokesman Sgt. Peter Berry: "If you were on the train and you got injured, would you go to Brooklyn for medical treatment? Draw your own conclusions."

Officials think the bomber may have ignited a glass jar filled with flammable liquid that he held in his lap.

"It was pretty clear somebody was carrying it somewhere to deliver it and got a nasty surprise," says terrorism expert Frank McGuire. "I'd say it has no connection to the World Trade Center bombing. It's just an accident of geography."

The trade center is just one block west of the station.

"The bombs were not placed in the subway car, they were being taken somewhere by someone - and the police will be very interested in finding out where," McGuire says.

Though the damage appeared confined to the sixth car of the southbound 10-car train, the black smoke and fire brought flashbacks to the trade center blast.

"I thought, 'Here we go again,' " says investment banker Milt Klein, passing by when the bomb exploded after 1: 30 p.m.

The subway explosion came at a time when the New York City subway system, used by 3.5 million people a day, is trying to dispel its image as a bleak, urine-stenched underworld of intimidating panhandlers and muggers who lurk in dimly lit corridors. But Wednesday's bombing did little to assure riders to heed a transit advertisement that reads: "We know what you think of us, and boy, do we want to change your mind."

The bombing also came a week after a New York advertising executive was killed by a mailbomb believed sent by the notorious Unabomber, and six days after teen-age subway rider was burned when an incendiary device set his coat afire. Police Commissioner William Bratton says the two subway incidents appear unrelated.

But, in a city that takes pride in stoically cynical nonchalance in the face of the most daunting misfortune, the pandemonium was only temporary. By the evening rush hour, all but two subway lines were back in service.

"New Yorkers are strong," says police officer Matthew Carbone, who was at the scene. "They forget fast."

Contributing: Patricia Edmonds, Christine Sparta

Terror in the New York subway A firebomb ripped into a crowded subway car Wednesday afternoon just as passengers were beginning to exit onto the platform at Fulton Street Station. More than 40 were injured: 1. A southbound No. 4 (Lexington Avenue) train pulls into Fulton Street Station about 1: 30 p.m. 2. As doors open, a firebomb held by one passenger ignites. 3. 'Wave of fire' washes over crowd; smoke fills the air. 4. Passengers leap turnstiles, run to street.

Hero: Off-duty transit police officer Denfield Otto, 54, finds fire extinguisher in a token booth, sprays victims with foam to limit burns. Witness: Police waiting to talk to Edward Leary of Scotch Plains, N.J. an unemployed computer operator, found in Brooklyn 'with particularly severe burns.'

Inside the car Bomb was located in the sixth car of a 10-car train. The bomb: A glass jar, flammable liquid and a crude igniter Left behind: Briefcases, purses and Christmas packages were left behind as passengers scrambled for safety. Each was X-rayed by the police bomb squad, which turned up nothing.

Subway facts -- Billion passengers a year (3.5 million per day) -- 469 stations -- 656 miles of track -- Runs 24 hours a day -- Worst accident: 100 died in derailment in Brooklyn in 1918.

GRAPHIC: GRAPHIC, b/w, Marty Baumann and Stephen Conley, USA TODAY, Sources: USA TODAY research, AP, Reuters, New York City Transit Authority (Diagram, Map); PHOTO, color, Joe Tabacca, AP

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