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A first-person account of the A train derailment this morning

Written by
Tolly Wright

For about three years now, it’s been my job to write about how great New York is—the attractions, the bars, the one-of-a-kind events—but today I got to experience how great New Yorkers are.

This morning, I was on the Brooklyn-bound A train that derailed between the 135th and 125th Street stations. I was heading to work when it started screeching and swerving. There was a flash and then all the lights went out. Then smoke. Someone screamed and started to run to the back where I was sitting. The smoke smelled like awful burnt rubber and appeared dense in the light cast by phone flashlights.  

"Calm down!" a few soothing voices yelled, halting the people rushing to the back. People closer to the front of the car said they saw fire on the tracks in front of us, though I didn't see it. Later I read reports of sparks and others about flames caused by debris. I'm not sure what they saw. We couldn't hear anything over the intercom in our car. No cell service. The door to the last car was locked. After several attempts, a man kicked the window of the door open.

We began calmly exiting single file to the last train through the door window. We were still under the impression there was a fire. If  the flame came any closer, the idea was to escape down the tunnel out the last train. I helped one person then another climb through the window, holding purses, lending an arm. A shorter woman came—a man and I lifted her through the window. He followed her to help her through the next. I followed shortly after. I wasn't one of those real brave people who put everyone before themselves.

When I got to the last car the air was better but I started shaking slightly, thinking about how long we'd already been in the dark. It was probably only a few short minutes, but it felt longer. A woman holding an accounting study book came up to me. "Hey, I'm your friend; my name is Rebecca*. You look a little shaken up. I am too." I'm okay. I was okay.

There was someone having a panic attack. She had been in Times Square during the May 18 car crash. Or maybe she was supposed to be working in Times Square then? It was hard to understand through her hyperventilating. Either way, it was a lot to bear.

A man was holding his little child, showing her pictures and other distractions on his phone as if nothing were happening. Later, after the fire department came, I saw her wearing a little FDNY helmet. Did a firefighter give that to her? Or did she somehow always have it? It made me want to cry. I did cry, but that was later.

On the train, we got word that the MTA and FDNY were here, but we couldn't see them. They were evacuating us out the front of the train. Along the way people offered each other words of encouragement. Smiles. Everyone passing each other said, “Are you okay? You’re okay. We’re going to be okay.” Brave New Yorkers held doors between cars, kept their cell phone lights shining, staying longer in the smoke for the comfort and safety of other passengers. This is the best train evacuation ever; you guys are the best, an MTA employee said.

We had to go through thicker smoke to get out. Some people were coughing. I wish I had my inhaler to help them. I saw firefighters with flashlights on the track and knew: We were safe.

After traveling through what felt like 20 cars, though I know factually it was a lot less, I exited onto the platform at 125th Street. We stood around for a moment taking it all in. Some people offering to help others in a daze. I saw Rebecca and thanked her for being so kind. A few people started clapping for us, for MTA, for NYPD, for FDNY, for life.

I saw the hyperventilating woman exit holding onto a stranger, another young woman who had been a soothing force for her through the train. The scared woman started sobbing, probably relieved it was over.

I exited the station soon after. Called work and started walking up St. Nicholas toward home, a full 20 blocks north, but only one express train away. I was okay with walking this time. It was lightly drizzling, but it was nice. In that moment never had Harlem seemed more beautiful and I cried.

The above has been edited from a post shared on my Facebook, and later Twitter, which I started writing about 10 minutes after evacuating as I walked. At the original time of writing I believed we had been rescued from a track fire. Since reading outside reports I have edited for clarity and to reflect the facts as they are currently being reported.

*Correction, June 28: Rebecca was previously referred to as Rachel in this story.  

A different passenger on the train posted these photos: 

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