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Port Authority explosion subway service changes resolved quickly due to counterterrorism exercise, Lhota says

An explosion shut down the Port Authority Bus

An explosion shut down the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the subway station below on Dec. 11, 2017, but the MTA was able to restore most of its train service within two hours, chairman Joe Lhota said. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Drew Angerer

The MTA is crediting a recent counterterrorism exercise for helping to restore subway service in Manhattan within hours after a bombing under the Port Authority Bus Terminal Monday morning.

MTA chairman Joe Lhota said the agency held a “tabletop exercise” with the NYPD just over a month ago, on Nov. 6, to coordinate efforts “in the event that something like this ever happened.”

“And the result of that was today, in less than two hours, we were back totally up to speed and getting our passengers around,” Lhota said at a morning news conference before thanking the NYPD and promising trains would be fully restored before the evening rush.

Maria “Maki” Haberfeld, a law professor with John Jay College of Criminal Justice who specializes in the NYPD, said tabletop exercises are an ideal way to plan for possible terrorism scenarios because they are more cost effective than field exercises, allowing agencies to repeat situations and learn from them until the response becomes second nature.

“So that you don’t wait for orders to come. When you’re faced with a situation you immediately know what to do,” she added.

Service on over a dozen subway lines was impacted when suspect Akayed Ullah, 27, detonated a homemade pipe bomb inside the underground tunnel that connects the 42nd Street-Port Authority and Times Square-42nd Street stations around 7:20 a.m., according to police and the MTA.

Chaos at the busy transit hub erupted as hundreds of people evacuated the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the NYPD descended on the scene. Ullah, who was injured in the explosion, was immediately taken into custody by a Port Authority police officer, a union spokesman said. Three civilians suffered minor injuries in the blast, according to the NYPD.

While police worked to secure the scene and usher people to safety, the MTA shut down service along the Eighth Avenue line, which includes the A, C and E trains, according to Lhota. The 42nd Street-Port Authority Bus Terminal station — the busiest station in the city along with the Times Square stop it connects to, which sees some 200,000 daily riders — was closed as the building above was evacuated. 

Many of the affected trains were rerouted and riders on other lines experienced a ripple effect of delays and small service changes to accommodate the shutdown.

Brooklyn resident Jessica Young, 33, was on an uptown A train when she said an announcement was made around 7:30 a.m. that all trains were skipping 42nd Street. She got off at 34th Street-Penn Station instead and walked up Seventh Avenue to her office.

“When I got to the office about 7:40, I had lots of messages asking me if I was all right and I had to Google it to find out what happened,” she said. “I hate that this happened, and I know that I’m very glad that I wasn’t five minutes earlier and caught up in it in person.”

Although rush hour commutes were disrupted for many, the MTA began restoring service around 9:40 a.m., according to Lhota, just two hours after the explosion. All that remained of service changes involved trains skipping the Port Authority and Times Square stations, and the suspension of the 42nd Street shuttle. By 11:15 a.m., 1, 2, 3, N, Q, R and W trains began making stops at the Times Square-42nd Street station again.

“New Yorkers are resilient. We want to thank you for your patience and for your spirit,” New York City Transit tweeted along with the restoration announcement.

The 42nd Street-Port Authority station was reopened around 2 p.m., the MTA said, which signaled a full restoration of service related to the bombing.

Bronx resident Eric Cuanalo, 21, usually gets off at the 42nd Street-Port Authority stop but around 11 a.m. he was forced to get off at 50th Street instead.

“It’s somewhat scary because you don’t know if it is going to happen to you,” he said of the attack as he waited at the since reopened station. “As always, it’s inconvenient for us because they shut down 42nd. We have to find different ways to get to wherever we were going.”

Completely securing a massive subway network like New York City’s is “impossible,” Haberfeld said, but tabletop exercises that include crowd control scenarios can help.

“I know people want to hear that everyone is safe and secure. It’s just not the case and that’s true for cities around the world,” she explained. “When you’re dealing with events like today, with venues that are hard to secure, the only way to effectively respond is with crowd control.”

Despite the bombing, which Mayor Bill de Blasio described as an “attempted terrorist attack,” some subway riders said they would not let fear dictate their lives.

“I’m not afraid to ride the subway. I obviously try to be on the lookout in general as there are lots of incidents that can happen between terrorism and assault and harassment,” Young said. “I can’t let fear stop me from living my life, and doing what I have to do. It’s just part of being a New Yorker.”

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