A Survivor’s Account of the Brooklyn Subway Shooting: “The Longest Thirty Seconds of My Absolute Life”
Unlike other New Yorkers these days, Kenneth Foote-Smith generally felt safe on the subway. Last year, at the request of a friend, the 25-year-old paralegal reluctantly agreed to stop taking the A line, after two homeless people were stabbed to death on the train. Otherwise, Foote-Smith kept rolling. He tended to avoid 1, 2, and 3, mostly because they couldn’t be trusted, but he took the N every day to and from work. In his mind, it stood out from all the other metro lines in the city. “It was my favorite,” he told me.
Around eight a.m. Tuesday morning, Foote-Smith boarded an N train bound for midtown Manhattan from the Fifty-ninth Street station in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Seconds after the doors closed, a man in an adjacent car put on a gas mask, dropped two smoke grenades on the floor and opened fire with a 9mm Glock handgun. The man who was arrested twenty-four hours after the shooting, sixty-two-year-old Frank R. James, allegedly fired thirty-three shots, wounding about two dozen horsemen around him.
Foote-Smith saw trapped passengers attempting to flee for their lives and seek help. “It was the longest thirty seconds of my absolute life,” he said. When the train pulled into the next station at Thirty-sixth Street, Foote-Smith ran out of the car, surrounded by panicked passengers, some gasping for air and crawling on a blood-stained platform. The assailant disappeared into the crowd, leaving behind a hatchet, fireworks and three rounds of ammunition.
Hours after the attack, I spoke with Foote-Smith about what he witnessed, how it changed his view of the city, and which city officials and agencies he felt let him down, him and the other passengers. The conductor of his train, Foote-Smith said, appeared unprepared. The MTA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. His account has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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“I woke up a little earlier than usual, made breakfast and read a chapter from the book ‘101 essays that will change the way you think.’ I like to start my morning like this. Enough to think about it on my brisk seven-minute walk to the train station. It’s been my daily commute for three months since moving to Bay Ridge-Sunset Park. I leave at 7:50 a.m. every morning so I can go to work from 8:40 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. A Mdepending on whether the train shows up or not.
“I arrived at the station. I got off on the platform and stood on the platform at the front because I like to sit at the very front of the train. I don’t know why, I know it’s statistically not safer. And today, when the train stopped, it was a little too busy for me. I am a bigger person. I’m about 6’2 and 230 lbs, so I’m a little bigger. I don’t really like being neck and neck. So, I was, like, No big deal – I saw on the sign on the way down that the next N train would be here in two minutes. And it was the decision that changed my whole day: to wait for the next train.
“The next train is coming, and I’m, like, Oh, perfect, it’s not crowded. I couldn’t find a seat but I got my next favorite place, which is standing against the door on the side of the express train that won’t open. And so, I was just standing there. I was on my phone reading a Japanese manga. I like to read those on the subway: four quick scenes, next page , and I can read two or three pages between stops. Really enjoyable and easy to digest.
“I still have these big headphones. I’d much rather hear my music than the glorious sounds of the subway. It was probably just positive rap. SoundCloud rap, good beat, makes you feel good while you read manga .
“We’re leaving Fifty-ninth Street, and once we get into the part of the tunnel where you lose service a bit, that’s where things go. There was this huge bang, which almost sounded like broken glass. It didn’t seem natural. It was not a normal subway noise. And so, that prompted me to take off a helmet. And I kind of scanned towards the driver’s door, and then as I walked back towards the end of the train where the connector door has to go to the other subway car, everyone gets up and shuffles over to to me, pretty much everything in front of me. And I’m, like, what’s going on?
“Before I could actually turn my head, I heard three big bangs – bang, bang, bang – and it sounded right above us, very close, much louder than the first bang. It was a tone and sound completely different. I turn my head and I see a gentleman knocking on the door of the subway and trying to open it. I look at this man dead in the face right now, trying to understand, is he mentally ill? Is he having an episode? He was trying fiercely to open that door, like, not caring about his body and pouring all his energy into it. It’s reckless to open that door, and I’m like, why is he trying so hard? And then I looked behind him. I see this white smoke filling the wagon. It may have already been halfway up the wagon when I noticed, but I could still see in the car. What I see are three faces smashed against the window. And it’s three women’s faces slamming at the door, crying out for help. e.
“There is a stop signal just before the train enters the next station. And it usually stops for, like, a minute or thirty seconds – the longest thirty seconds of my absolute life. All I could do was watch. I could make out the guy’s face and saw the terror. I looked into his eyes and saw fear. Once I saw the guy knocking on the door, I took my headphones off completely and started texting my close friend. I was, like, ‘Something’s going on, the wagon behind me is smoking.’ But I didn’t really have any service.
“I was praying it was an electrical fire or, like, a maintenance issue on the train. My heart is dropping, my stomach is collapsing and I feel the panic starting to overwhelm me. And I look a little around the train. I look at everyone’s faces. Some people are recording, and I see that same panic and worry coming over people. They start shouting for the driver. You know, ‘Move the train, please!’ And then we hear the three, four – bop, bop, bop, bops – real quick, back to back. We all knew what it was, but nobody wanted to say anything. We were just shouting for the driver to move the train. The screams are getting louder and louder. The man knocked harder on the door. I couldn’t see into the car anymore as it was now completely filled with smoke at the time.
“The women who were originally against the gate opened it, and now people were pouring onto the small platform between the subway cars and screaming. Now we can hear the screams. It’s much more audible. And it kind of reminded me of a scene from the zombie movie with all the – just the desperation and the kind of reckless abandonment, trying to get through something or, like, pushing through a locked or broken door . It looked like a horror movie. And we were frozen in our train. Nobody did anything until they opened the door between the cars, then a gentleman taller than me, a big male, God bless him, brave as hell, comes and tries to open the door on our side. I wasn’t going to be the person trying to do this because I didn’t know who that man on the other side of the door was. Because in my head I thought he could have been the shooter. The man tries to open the door, uses all his strength, but the door doesn’t move at all. So finally, right after he tries the door, the train moves. As the train enters the station, we hear the bop-bop-bops, three more, very quickly, three or four more. And, at that time, we are all huddled against the doors to go out.
“That’s when it becomes an absolute maelstrom. As soon as the doors opened, people swarmed the doors, like a race. They were coughing, covering their faces, crying, absolute hysteria, physically shaking. I saw people who were shot and just lay on the ground. The scariest thing is that we didn’t know what the shooter looked like because as people were running off the train they were shouting ‘He’s got a gun’, ‘He’s got a bomb’, ‘He’s shooting “, “Everyone, get down, ”He’s got gas masks, ”He’s an MTA guy.’ People were saying so many things. And I didn’t really know what to do. There was a pillar towards the end of the platform, and I was right behind it, stretching out half my body, trying to assess what was going on. was actually happening and make sense of it. Just as the N train stopped, the R on the other side of the platform stopped.