By Maria Caspani, Jonathan Allen and Rami Ayyub
NEWYORK – Police mounted an intense manhunt on Tuesday 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 that prompted new calls to fight a surge of violence in the city’s transit system.
Police said the perpetrator, 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 hospitalized 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.
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.
‘SURGE OF CRIME‘
New York, the nation’s most populous city, has seen a sharp rise in violent crime during the pandemic, including a string of seemingly random attacks on its subways. The system is one of the world’s oldest and most extensive.
The subway violence has included a number of attacks in which passengers have been pushed onto the tracks from platforms, including a Manhattan woman whose murder was seen as part of a surge in hate-driven attacks against Asian Americans.
Mayor Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain and Brooklyn borough president who took office in January, has vowed to improve subway safety by increasing police patrols and expanding outreach to the mentally ill.
Speaking to CNN, Adams said Tuesday’s incident “was a senseless act of violence” and pledged to double the number of officers on subway patrol.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul pledged “the full resources of our state to fight this surge of crime, this insanity that is feeding our city.” The White House said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the incident.
CNN and local media, citing law enforcement sources, said multiple high-capacity ammunition magazines, additional unused smoke canisters, gasoline containers and fireworks were found in the subway station with the gun, which apparently had jammed.
Speaking on a radio interview, Adams confirmed media reports of “some form of malfunction” in the station’s security camera system, which could hamper the investigation. But how many cameras were affected was not immediately clear, he said.
However, investigators obtained cell phone video from an eyewitness that shows the suspect, a law enforcement source told CNN.
Brooklyn resident Yayha Ibrahim said he saw people running from the station, and decided to walk down into it to see what was happening.
“I saw a lady, she was shot right in her leg and she was screaming for help,” he said. Rescue workers “did a good job of coming quick and fast, and the ambulance came in and they took her.”