A heavily armed gunman set off smoke grenades before spraying 33 bullets into a rush-hour train as it pulled into a Brooklyn subway station Tuesday morning, officials said. It’s the latest high-profile horror in a transit system still struggling to win back riders.
The shots — initially reported as an “unusual loud noise” in an internal MTA alert obtained by THE CITY — rang out just before 8:30 a.m. at the 36th Street stop in Sunset Park, sending panicked commuters bolting from the Manhattan-bound N train, with some collapsing as smoke billowed out on to the station platform.
Officials said that in addition to the 10 people wounded by gunshots, 13 others suffered from smoke inhalation, shrapnel wounds or panic. No one died, but five people were listed Tuesday in critical but stable condition.
MTA surveillance cameras at the station were “malfunctioning,” officials said.
The shooter fled the scene in the commotion but police were on the hunt into the night for a 62-year-old “person of interest” they identified as Frank R. James, who has addresses in Philadelphia and Wisconsin.
James appeared on investigators’ radar after police recovered the keys to his rented U-Haul van at the shooting scene — along with 33 discharged shell casings, 15 bullets, two detonated smoke grenades, three extended magazine clips, two non-detonated smoke grenades, a hatchet, fireworks and gasoline.
Police tracked down the van to Kings Highway and West 4th Street in Gravesend, officials said. But the gunman — who police said was wearing a surgical mask and a neon orange/green construction vest, a gray hoodie and a construction helmet — remained at large on Tuesday night.
“At this time, we still do not know the suspect’s motivation,” NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell said during a Tuesday evening briefing at One Police Plaza in Manhattan. “Clearly, this individual boarded the train and was intent on violence.”
Officials said that because of statements James made on a YouTube channel, the NYPD had increased Mayor Eric Adams’ security presence, “out of an abundance of caution.”
‘A Scary Moment’
At the same news conference, the mayor, who is restricted to Gracie Mansion with COVID, appeared via video and rattled off a list of past mass shootings across the country before tearing into what he called a “cult of death that has taken over this nation.”
“These killers have used weapons of mass destruction to massacre innocent people,” Adams said. “They control no armies or military forces, yet these individual killers terrorize our nation.”
Chief of Department James Essig said the gunman had been seated in a corner of the second car of the N train before tossing two smoke grenades onto the floor. He then fired a Glock-17 9mm handgun 33 times, Essig said, striking seven men and three women as the train pulled into the 36th Street stop in Sunset Park.
Among the victims were several teenagers on their way to school, said Gov. Kathy Hochul after visiting some of them at Maimonides Medical Center, which has a pediatric trauma center.
While police asked the public for videos of the shooting, officials confirmed that security cameras at the 36th Street station were not working. The MTA last year finished installing cameras in all 472 stations.
“We know that there were three stations [where] the video wasn’t working,” Essig said. “We’re still investigating that to see why or how, whether it was a mechanical problem or electrical issue, why those videos weren’t up.”
John Butsikaras, 15, was on his way to Brooklyn Technical High School from Bay Ridge when the conductor emptied the train at 25th Street, where he saw injured passengers on the platform, he said.
“It was all crowded, people didn’t know what was going on,” he told THE CITY. “It was a scary moment.”
Video obtained by NY1 shows people fleeing a subway car into a Sunset Park subway station after Tuesday’s shooting incident. The FDNY says 16 people are hurt, at least 10 of whom were shot. pic.twitter.com/N6XMNZubQS
— Spectrum News NY1 (@NY1) April 12, 2022
Some witnesses had initially said the gunman appeared to be wearing an MTA uniform.
“A vest, you can get anywhere, but a uniform, that’s different because you have to go to the union hall and get fitted,” a veteran MTA worker told THE CITY. “If it’s an MTA uniform, it could be an ex-employee, family of an ex employee or an employee.”
Videos posted to social media showed riders scrambling out of the train as smoke began to rise in the station.
Hochul noted those riders had, moments earlier, been “en route to school, en route to their jobs and into a normal day.”
“That sense of tranquility and normalness was disrupted, brutally disrupted by an individual so coldhearted and depraved of heart that they had no caring about the individuals that they assaulted as they simply went about their daily lives,” she said.
Several schools in the area were under shelter-in-place orders late into Tuesday afternoon as investigators searched for the shooter.
Nowhere Near Normal
The violence during the morning commute again highlighted the struggles faced by the city and the transit system entering year three of a devastating pandemic.
“We want to get back to normal,” Hochul said. “It has been a long, hard two years — that’s what we crave, stability and normalcy.”
The MTA last week recorded five straight weekdays of more than 3 million trips, a shade below 60% of pre-pandemic ridership. But the transit agency is also struggling to win back riders amid concerns about crime, a rise in assaults and the January pushing death of Michelle Go from a platform at the Times Square-42nd Street station.
Lisa Daglian of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA said the shooting at the Sunset Park hub on the D, N and R lines “likely will be a step back” for a system that has been battered by the pandemic and concerns over crime.
“What has to happen is there has to be an oncoming commitment to making the subway safe and combating the day-to-day crime and the very scary, very real situation that we’ve seen today,” Daglian told THE CITY. “I believe we’ve seen that commitment.”
In January, Adams and Hochul announced more police officers would be assigned to the subway system. One month later, they rolled out a plan designed to curb homelessness on trains and in stations, while enforcing the MTA’s code of conduct.
Transit officials had, for years, been pushing for an increased police presence in stations to cut into fare evasion and crime. NYPD crime statistics show that, in 2021, felony assaults in the subway hit their highest level in more than two decades, topping 400 for the first time since 1997 despite lower ridership.
“We are continuing our mission as the ridership returns, hopefully to normalcy soon,” Jason Wilcox, the NYPD Transit Chief said at last month’s MTA committee meetings. “Not just to keep the ridership safe, but to make them feel safe.”
MTA Chairman Janno Lieber had said at last month’s board meeting that those efforts have begun to yield results for riders.
“While by no means are we out of the woods — and there is a lot of progress that needs to be made on subway safety — I just want to acknowledge that the work has begun,” Lieber said. “A serious effort is underway.”
On Tuesday, Lieber credited subway riders for being “incredibly resilient.”
“We saw New Yorkers in a difficult situation, in an emergency, helping each other,” Lieber said. “That’s the subway riders, that’s who New Yorkers are.”
‘I Will Continue to Take the Subway’
Henry Mautner, 33, an owner of Minnie’s Bar on Fourth Avenue near 33rd Street, said he usually takes the D train to work.
When he heard what happened this morning he was first worried about his staff and his customers. But he said it doesn’t make him fearful to ride the trains.
“I think I will continue to take the subways. It’s obviously a terrible thing but I think it’s just unlucky that it happened here,” he said. “I will continue to take the subway — maybe not today.”
Tony Utano, the president of Transport Workers Local 100, called the shooting “a shocking and horrible burst of violence in our transit system” and said anti-crime efforts need to be stepped up.
“We need to fix this crime thing, otherwise this will happen again,” he told THE CITY. “When there is a war, you go down with your forces to where the war is.”
MTA employees received a notice from Patrick Warren, the agency’s chief safety officer, saying no transit employees have been reported injured. The memo also thanked train crews who “acted quickly to get our riders off trains and evacuated to safety.”
A veteran train operator said crews have procedures to follow when faced with unruly riders or violence while in transit.
“You call the rail control center, get the train into a station, open the doors and hope it doesn’t get any worse,” the transit worker told THE CITY. “They’re responsible for the passenger safety, but also their own safety. It’s got to be a harrowing situation.”
In Tuesday morning’s attack, a MTA worker on the intercom at the 36th Street station instructed victims to get on an R train, which took them to 25th Street.
“I think it was a good, cool-headed move by that person,” Joe Giacalone, a former NYPD detective and now a professor of police science at John Jay College, told THE CITY. “Those metal doors can provide some safety so that he can’t get access to them. So I’ll definitely say that it was a good move.”
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