"No way to stop it"

In the New York subways, commuters think of London, 9/11 and the likelihood of more attacks.

Published July 7, 2005 9:12PM (EDT)

In the hours following the terrorist attacks on the London public transportation network, the mood on the New York City subways wasn't exactly panicked. But it wasn't exactly optimistic, either. Instead, MTA workers, riders and police officers wandering around New York's extensive underground tunnels late Thursday morning expressed the same grim acceptance of life in an unsafe time and an unsafe city that they have since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I guess I noticed a few more cops this morning, but I didn't know why," said a token-booth operator at the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall stop who'd been on duty from the early morning and didn't want to give her name. There were no cops visible on the platform at the time. The MTA worker hadn't heard about the London bombings until partway through her shift. She wasn't too concerned. "The thing is, since Sept. 11, we always have a bunch of cops here, so it's nothing new," she said.

Further down the platform at the Brooklyn Bridge stop, which is located very close to the New York Police Department's headquarters, white-bearded Andrew Squire was waiting for a train, a briefcase and the New York Times on his lap, his glasses held together with a red rubber band. When asked if he had connected the news of the London bombings with his own commute, he said, "Yes! After I heard the news, I asked my wife, 'Are you going to take the subway this morning?' And she said, 'Of course. I have to go to work.'" Squire stood as his train approached, yelling over his shoulder as he stepped into a car: "In other words, the thought I had was that this is a fact of life."

Down at the Bowling Green station, where local news stations had reported that previously scheduled terror drills had taken place this morning, there was no sign of extra police presence. Some subway riders were acutely aware of their vulnerability. "I don't feel safe," said Keisha Bradberry, a 26-year-old student at Medgar Evers College. "But I have no choice but to ride the trains." Bradberry said she'd been on the trains all morning, and that while she tries to avoid the subway at rush hours, it's hard during the school year, since she has classes and work and two children to drop off at school. "It's hard not to travel on public transportation when you have kids and you don't have a vehicle," she said. When asked if she thought an attack on the New York subways was likely, she laughed darkly. "Well, yeah. I mean, that's just common sense," said Bradberry. "To my mind, all we have a choice to do about it is pray."

Few of the police officers I approached agreed to talk to a reporter. But one, a six-year veteran of the force in his 40s, spoke on the condition that I not reveal his name or the subway station that he was patrolling. According to this officer, there had been no official change in police procedure on Thursday morning in the wake of the London attacks, though he noted that most cops who were normally undercover were in uniform today, in an effort to boost the appearance of a police presence in the subways.

"The London thing just happened, so you'll probably see an increased presence," said the police officer. He added that since Sept. 11, there are always uniformed cops stationed at the entrances to tunnels between boroughs -- the places where trains packed with people snake under the rivers that made Manhattan one of the most thriving port cities on the planet, and in turn one of the financial and cultural capitals of the world, and in turn a key terrorist target. Asked what he thinks the likelihood of a subway bombing in New York is, the officer shook his head. "I think there's no way to stop it," he said. "How can you stop someone getting on a train with a bomb? That's just common sense. There's no way to stop it." He shook his head. Asked if he gets scared himself, he laughed. "I don't get scared," he said, "but I prefer to drive."

At the Fulton Street station, a terrorism drill was in progress. Uniformed officers were standing at regular car-length intervals along the downtown 4,5 platform. Whenever a train pulled up, the cops would step onto the cars, look both ways, and then step off. "This is something we do daily, at different locations," said the commanding officer, who reluctantly pointed at his badge, which read "Ponella," when I asked for his name. Ponella was watching his officers in the drill, and occasionally conferring with a huddle of four plainclothes representatives of the NYPD's Counter-Terrorism Division, all of whom declined to comment. Ponella confirmed that police procedures on Thursday were not a response to the London bombings. "There are things we do every day that people see or that they don't see," he said of the police department's anti-terrorism efforts.

On the way off the platform, one of the drill officers -- a burly, mustachioed guy who looked like he'd been sent from central casting for the role of New York City cop -- stopped me to ask what I was writing. I told him and asked him if he's heard about the London bombings. "Yeah, and we don't want that to happen here," he said, flattening his palms across the air in a wipeout gesture. "That would be a disaster!" But did he think we were safe? "What do you think?" he said, backing onto a train that had just pulled up to do his check. "Use your common sense. We can't stop it."

At the World Trade Center station, the final stop of the E train line, a police officer was considerably more upbeat. "Nah, they didn't tell us anything about London this morning," said the cop, who also declined to be named. "I think we're safe. Sure." This officer invited me to go ask passengers how they felt, and let me know that I could check out the New Jersey commuter PATH station just behind him.

The E train station connects to the PATH trains just where it always has, at the base of the World Trade Center. That means that commuters exiting the station or moving between trains walk around the inner perimeter of the ground zero pit that now gapes where the twin towers once stood. At lunchtime, hundreds of commuters were zipping by next to the pit, as they do every day, up and down the escalators to New Jersey trains above which reads a yellow-lettered sign that says, "Welcome to the World Trade Center."

Along the mesh fence that separates the underground crowds from ground zero, groups of people with suitcases, cameras and tour guides were gathered, staring at the pipes, ladders, Gatorade bottles and other objects littering the pit, which on Thursday was full of brown puddles from recent rains.

Three young men in dress shirts were standing at the mesh fence. All three are 20-year-old summer interns at the office of the New York State Comptroller, and they were at ground zero for their lunch break. Brian Essig, a rising senior at Western New England State College, is from New Jersey and commutes to his internship every day from Saddlebrook to Hoboken to lower Manhattan. "After London, I thought there'd be more cops this morning, maybe a couple of dogs, but there really wasn't anything extra," he said. Looking out at ground zero, he added, "The only comforting thing about riding the PATH into this station is that there's nothing above you to blow up."

Nick McGuire, a rising junior at Cornell, grew up in New York City and was in high school here for Sept. 11, but had never seen ground zero before. "It was just never a priority of mine," McGuire said, adding that his friends had decided it was time for him to see it today, "because, why not?" He said it had nothing to do with the London bombings, and that he feels safe on the subways. "There's probably a very slim chance that there could be a bombing," he said. "But never anything of this magnitude again."

The third man, Alex Pearlman, attends the University of Rochester, and was also raised in Manhattan. His take on public transportation safety was, "If someone's going to bomb the subway, someone's going to bomb the subway." Pearlman was beginning his junior year at Stuyvesant High School, just across the street from the World Trade Center, in September 2001. Once he and his classmates were allowed back into their school buildings after the attack, Pearlman saw a lot of ground zero. Four years later, looking into the pit, he pointed out that what he really noticed was the green foliage. Indeed, there are weeds and grass and what look like small trees growing in the mud, even right next to the ramp that rescue and demolition teams used to carry debris out of the pit for months. "I guess it's time for some new growth here," he said.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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