NEW YORK (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Police mounted an intense manhunt for a gunman who set off a smoke bomb and opened fire in a New York subway car, injuring at least 17 people in a morning rush-hour attack on Tuesday (April 12) that prompted new calls to fight a surge of violence in the city’s transit system.
New York police said they were looking for man named Frank James in connection with the shooting.
Police also said they had found a van believed connected to the incident as well as a nine-millimeter semi-automatic handgun, a hatchet and fireworks. A key found at the scene led them to the van.
They said the suspect, who was seen wearing a gas mask and was believed to have acted alone, immediately fled.
The attack unfolded as a Manhattan-bound subway train on the N line of the underground rail system was pulling into a station in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood.
Ten people were hit directly by gunfire, including five hospitalised in critical but stable condition, authorities said.
Seven others were injured by shrapnel or otherwise hurt in the chaos as panicked riders fled the smoke-filled subway car, some collapsing to the pavement as they poured onto the platform of the 36th Street station. The fire department said two of those hurt were treated at the scene.
According to CNN and other media organizations, a total of 29 people suffering various injuries in the incident turned up at area hospitals, though most appeared to have been emergency room walk-ins who were treated and discharged.
CNN, Fox News and various local media outlets reported that a U-Haul van that authorities were searching for in connection with the shooting had been located parked on a city street a few miles from the crime scene.
The suspect, described by police as a man of heavy build, wearing a green construction-type vest and hooded sweatshirt, remained at large several hours after the shooting.
New York Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner Keechant Sewell said the shooting was not being investigated as an act of terrorism, though authorities would not rule anything out as a motive.
Sewell said the suspect was seen donning a gas mask in the train car as it was about to enter the station, then removed a canister from his bag and opened it.
“The train at that time began to fill with smoke. He then opened fire, striking multiple people on the subway and in the platform,” she added.
Commuters were told to expect major delays on the D, F, M, N, Q and R trains, and urged to take alternate lines or buses. Officers were inspecting all stations and trains as part of its investigation, the NYPD said on Twitter.
Outside the station, in an area known for its thriving Chinatown and views of the Statue of Liberty, authorities shut down a dozen or so blocks and cordoned off the immediate vicinity with crime-scene tape.
Schools in the neighborhood were placed under security lockdowns.
John Butsikares, a 15-year-old who passed through the 36th Street station soon after the incident, said the train’s conductor ordered everyone on the station platform to get on board.
“I didn’t know what happened. It was a scary moment. And then at 25th Street (the next station) we were all told to get off. There was people screaming for medical assistance,” said Butsikares, who was going to school.
Taryn Boley of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighbourhood was on an N train that arrived at the platform at 8.35am. Her train had stopped for two minutes between 25th and 36th Streets, with an announcement about a smoke condition.
But there was “a lack of communication” as riders stepped onto the platform, she said.
“When the doors opened, it was chaos,” said Boley, 26, who manages a neuropsychology and therapy practice in Industry City. “People were huddling, maybe thinking they had to shelter in place. My main objective was to get out of the station.”
A young man on the stairwell, his leg bleeding extensively, was texting as he was being attended by two emergency medical technicians, Boley said.
Outside the station, “hordes of high school students who looked horrified” stood amid police cars, ambulances and a fire truck.
The incident is the latest in a string of high-profile acts of violence that have gripped New York City.
Last month, two men experiencing homelessness were shot by an individual who was traveling between Washington and New York to shoot homeless people. One of the men died.
In January, Michelle Go, a 40-year-old manager at consulting firm Deloitte, was shoved on the tracks and killed at the Times Square subway station.
Earlier this year, Adams vowed to direct more police officers to transit stations to blunt an uptick in crime on the subway system. That plan, which included directing more cops to patrol the system, has been in effect since February.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has struggled to restore subway ridership to pre-pandemic levels while crime and people seeking shelter in the system have increased.
About 3.3 million people ride the subway during the weekday, down from an average 5.5 million in 2019, according to the MTA’s latest ridership data.
The 36th Street station was serving about 13,342 weekday riders in 2019 before the pandemic. It served about 6,000 in 2020, and saw about 9,000 in February 2022.
The last incident involving an explosive in New York City’s subway occurred in December 2017, when a Bangladeshi immigrant, Akayed Ullah, detonated a pipe bomb he was wearing in the subway tunnel between Times Square and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Ullah, who told police he was inspired by militants of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, was later sentenced to life in prison after being convicted at trial.