I turned down a drink last night in favor of catching an earlier train home; little did I know my decision would lead to a one and a half hour ordeal featuring a still-unexplained explosion, very real smoke, an underground evacuation and emergency personnel.
It was a little after 9:30 pm when I boarded the 4 train to Brooklyn from Fulton Street. I remember glancing up from my Kindle at Bowling Green to reassure myself we were making progress; it was my first time on the 4 in awhile and I just wanted to be home. All seemed normal and I went back to my reading when what sounded like an explosion ripped through the car -- definitely not a sound you want to hear while in a black tunnel under the East River. The train shuddered and came to a halt. That's when the car enclosing me began to fill up with thick, odd-smelling smoke.
Then the ventilation system shut down. A few passengers started to panic and opened the doors on either side of the car in an attempt to get more air, which only made the car fill up with the foul-smelling smoke more quickly. Other passengers yelled at them to stop."It's coming from the tunnel!" someone shouted.
As the air in the car slowly turned gray, passengers began to cover their mouths with scarfs and sweaters. Unsettlingly, one man pulled on a gas mask and the person next to me whispered that it seemed like he was prepared for whatever was about to happen -- perhaps too prepared (he's by car door to left in this photo:)
Passengers began to speculate about what was going on. A few made nervous jokes while others appeared to close their eyes in prayer or thought or both. I hadn't been to church in years, but found myself clasping my hands in a pose that recalled my Grandmother Mary whenever she heard bad news. I pulled my turtleneck over my lips in an attempt to ventilate the stale air and told myself to breathe.
Was this it? The two year anniversary of my mother's death is Saturday; what will my dad do alone? Would my sister have to come home from Germany, where she'd finally been carving a life out for herself? Did I really just spend the last night of my life getting drinks with a finance guy?
A woman in her late 20s calmly walked over and pushed the red emergency "talk" button that you always stare at when you forget reading material but would never think you'll actually have to use.
We all looked up and waited for a reply.
The PA made repeated beeping sounds as if the conductor was trying to speak, but no announcements followed. All talking stopped when the signaling beep came on; each time an announcement failed to materialize, the nervous laughter and frustration grew more audible.
"What the hell is going on?" "Are the other cars filled up with smoke?" It was hard to see in the haze. A few people crouched low to the ground to avoid the rising smoke. I could see a baby carriage near the door of the next car that a mother had covered with a blanket as she covered her own mouth with her coat. We stared blankly at each other.
Finally, our conductor pushed through the door to my left, his dreds swinging beneath his hat as he walked briskly through the car telling everyone to calm down. To repeated questions for information, he replied, "Give me five minutes, just five minutes." I had the sinking feeling he didn't know what was going on, either. Could he communicate with the dispatcher if the train's communication system was down? I struggled to think of what an electrical shortage would mean in this tunnel under the water, cut off from communication. Someone made a joke about the lights cutting out -- at least we had that going for us. Nervous laughter in response.
Somewhere in that five minute window the ventilator came back on and the air began to clear. The conductor walked back through in a controlled hurry, not meeting our eyes. The back of his blue striped shirt was covered in black grease. A drunk girl in our car slurred "Look at his shirt, he got dirty for us. I love you!" (This was the first of her audible and unintentional attempts at comic relief. The rest revolved around her lamentations that she hadn't peed at the last bar. Her friend shut her up by feeding her almonds.)
Finally, an announcement was made over the PA: a rescue train was coming and would park behind us. We were told we'd walk through the cars to board it and it would take us back to Manhattan. I remember being impressed at how calm and organized our exit was as we filed towards the back of the train -- people held the door for one another, swapping stories and nervous smiles. In the cars near the front, fireman greeted us at the door. I've never been more thankful to see FDNY.
As I walked through the cars towards clearer air, I was surprised to see some exhausted or perhaps just jaded passengers opting to sit and stay put while the rest of the train paraded by. Some New Yorker's aren't phased by anything, it seems.
I walked until I reached the conductor's car and sat down. A male passenger in his late teens or early twenties came up to him and reported seeing a bright spark at the time of the hissing sound that immediately preceded the smoke.
As I sat next to the conductor in his booth, I heard the dispatcher come in over the radio to coordinate the rescue. I turned on my iPhone and began recording:
WATCH: Stressed train conductor radios dispatcher to coordinate rescue
Dispatcher: "Conductor or train operator on the original train going to Woodlawn, this is the RCC."
Conductor: "Okay this is the conductor speaking I have a lot of people. I have a lot of people. I didn't know it was this many people. This train is packed."
Dispatcher: "... I need to know if you are in a safe condition so I can move the rescue train back to Bowling Green. That's what I need right now."
Conductor: "The conductor is in his station, the conductor is in his station. I haven't seen the crew. I haven't seen the supervisor or the train operator."
Dispatcher: "There is a train operator on the original train to Woodlawn according to the RCC."
Announcement: "Attention costumers: due to a train delay in front of us unable to move, we are going to have to take the train you are on now and head back into Bowling Green. We should be moving in the next five minutes, we should be moving in the next five minutes."
Dispatcher: "Is anybody else aboard the train itself? [inaudible] ... Anybody on the road, operators ... someone was walking towards North End ... [inaudible] ... There are no other personnel on the road that you are aware of, is that correct?
Unidentified voice on radio: "Not that I'm aware of, correct."
The floor lurched and, as the train began to move back towards Manhattan, everyone in the car applauded.
WATCH: A videographer for The Economist talks to HuffPost inside the rescue train about her reaction to the incident and the behavior of her fellow passengers:
We arrived in a station eerily devoid of commuters, the platform studded with firemen who greeted us and asked if were were okay. No one had any additional information about what caused the smoke.
WATCH: Tourist from Holland describes experience inside smoke-filled train, handling of situation by MTA to HuffPost:
The first thing I did when I got above ground was call my dad.
Then I got myself that second drink, after all.
Village Voice's Steven Thrasher was also on the train, and took this video of the conductor explaining the evacuation plan: