MTA Has Another Broken System

Evacuate This Area! The Subway Emergency That Wasn't

Updated 14 weeks ago David Stone
Evacuate This Area! The Subway Emergency That Wasn't
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

On the same day that a lackadaisical emergency alert sent frightened Hawaiians scurrying for cover, not to be outdone, the MTA launched a terrifying screwup of their own, sending parents running to evacuate with their children but leaving some of us shaking our heads over the routine, risky incompetence.

On a casual, late Saturday afternoon, my wife and I headed home from the Met, getting on the Second Avenue Subway at 86th Street. Usually, the worst you have to be concerned with is the unpredictable delays between trains and the sardine-like packing that follows, if you're lucky enough to get on.

But not today.

As we left a southbound Q, heading downstairs for an F Train home, the MTA began blasting evacuation orders for the 63rd Street station.

This was, by far, the loudest clear announcement I've ever heard on a subway platform. Nearly unbearable, screeching calls that used to go out in the early days of the Roosevelt Island station were probably louder, if memory serves correctly, but you couldn't understand what the hell they were saying.

These were clear.

Get out the staton, now!

Clear the area. Imminent threat. Follow directions of MTA employees...

While some passengers reacted in panic - after all, years of exaggerated warnings about terrorism have everyone expecting something terrible at any minute - there was a weird dissonance about what was going on.

First of all, the Q Train operator, instead of pausing to let passengers back on, briskly closed up and eased out of the station.

A confused looking maintenance worker in an MTA uniform paced up the platform nearby, cellphone glued to his ear, seeming as baffled as we were.

And there were no cops anywhere. NYPD's rapid response in dangerous situations is impressive, and if you've lived in New York long enough, you've seen it, the forcefulness, the strong sense of having things under control.

But there was not one of New York's Finest in sight.

We continued down the stairs to the Queens bound platform after seeing others ahead of us increase their pace in the way that lets you know there's a train you can't see in the station.

Sure enough, an F Train with Roosevelt Island as its next stop was waiting...

Waiting, that is, long enough to let riders being ordered to evacuate see its doors close before it left the station without us.

You know how the If You See Something, Say Something campaign tells you to go to an MTA employee for help? A little jaded, I always thought that was humorous in a New York kinda way.

The F Train's conductor had her window open, although the doors were closed, and I asked her to open them and let us on.

"We're being told to evacuate," I told her, in case there was a remote chance she hadn't heard. "Can you open the doors get us out of here?"

Meanwhile, the evacuation orders, accompanied by prolonged honking, continued to fill the station, repeating with only momentary pauses.

Our predictably unhelpful MTA employee couldn't be bothered to say, "No," "Don't worry," or anything else. 

Actually, she didn't even acknowledge the question as her train glided off to Roosevelt Island, leaving us on the platform.

(Note: we take for granted that the MTA and/or the Transit Workers Union has an excuse handy for this indifference to riders. They always do.)

But back to the platform.

As frightened parents with small children struggling to keep up ran toward escalators at the far end of the station and a sort of mob migrated the other way toward the elevators, with absolutely no guidance but the evacuation warnings blaring, a northbound Q whistled into the station, depositing more passengers into the supposedly evacuated station before moving on to 72nd Street.

People were looking around, worried about the dire warnings of imminent danger on one hand and puzzled at a handful of us who were waiting, as we normally did, for the next train.

My confidence in the MTA to do anything right is not high. That's a danger. In the event of a real threat, the difference between life and death may be how you respond to orders in emergencies like this.

But here, it just seemed obvious that my intuition and observation was more reliable than anything I was likely to get from the MTA or its indifferent employees.

We decided to stick. We just didn't trust what we were hearing.

And we were right.

After roughly ten minutes of enduring blasted evacuation orders while waiting for an F Train home, a public address announcer came on to tell us it was just a test and we should ignore the warnings that'd been panicking riders.

After ten minutes...

We got on the next F and soon unlocked our apartment door.

Unlike Hawaii, nobody explained anything. There are no stories in today's morning news. Just a few score New Yorkers reassured again that we can't count on the MTA, even in an emergency.

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