Atlantic Cities

How Should Metros Respond to Emergencies?

How Should Metros Respond to Emergencies?
Reuters

A year after several hundred passengers were trapped overnight on a New York City subway train during a blizzard, 22 of them are suing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — "to seek justice and gain a policy that will benefit the public now and for years to come." The lawsuit was filed earlier this week in the state Supreme Court in Queens County. A copy of it, posted online by Transportation Nation [PDF], offers some pretty grim details of what lawyers for the passengers are calling "a deplorable imprisonment."

The five-car, Manhattan-bound A train stopped running near an elevated, outdoor station in Queens at about 10 p.m. on December 26, 2010. Once the train stopped running its heat shut off, but the conductor wouldn't open the doors to let the passengers out. Instead, after about an hour of waiting, the riders were told to jam into a single car "to use the collective bodies as heat for the passengers," according to the lawsuit. Since there were more people than seats in the single car, some had to stand through the ordeal or sit on the cold floor.

For the next 8 to 10 hours, the passengers remained trapped in the motionless train without access to heat, food or water, or a bathroom, according to the suit. The M.T.A. promised to send help but sent none. "The conductor of the train told the passengers that M.T.A. headquarters were not responding because of a 'political' issue," the suit alleges, without offering further speculation on that issue. Passengers who called 911 were told to call M.T.A. instead; those who called M.T.A. were instructed to dial 911. All were instructed to relieve themselves between the cars, but according to the suit, some didn't make it there in time.

At about 8 a.m. the next morning the train began to move, but any hopes of a swift ride into the city were dashed when the passengers were told to get off at the next station — also an outdoor station. They waited for another train on a platform covered in several feet of snow. The M.T.A. had sent no blankets or emergency medical supplies to the station despite a full night to deliberate on what measures to take to address the situation. Two trains filled with passengers passed the group before a third stopped to pick them up, roughly 45 minutes after they had been unloaded onto the platform.

The lawsuit alleges that despite knowing many of these details the M.T.A. "refused to agree to develop a policy to prevent this disaster from happening again." Instead, when the passengers subsequently told the M.T.A. what happened, the agency "insisted that it did nothing wrong and that the passengers being trapped was an act of god outside the defendant's control." Finally, earlier this month, a city transit official admitted that the agency up and "forgot about that train."

If the plaintiffs get their way the agency will develop a response protocol that includes mobilizing first-aid respondents, providing blankets, food, and water, and communicating with the families of the stranded. A better punishment might be to make all those responsible spend a night in a frozen A car themselves.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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