Track fire at 96th Street in Manhattan sparks chaos among riders

A track fire near the 96th Street station in Manhattan caused 2 and 3 trains to run local for a half hour on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, the MTA said.
A track fire near the 96th Street station in Manhattan caused 2 and 3 trains to run local for a half hour on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, the MTA said. Photo Credit: Nicole Brown

A subway rider who was injured when a track fire near the 96th Street station in Manhattan touched off a stampede Wednesday night says the entire chaotic scene could have been avoided if straphangers didn’t overreact.

Angel Benendez, 50, said he was just getting off a train at 96th Street — which serves the 1, 2 and 3 lines — when people on the crowded platform started to run, seemingly for no reason.

“It was really, really packed,” he said of the station platform. “All of a sudden I saw one person running and then another one. Then I heard a vroom; it sounded like a plane flying overhead.”

The sound Benendez heard was related to what the MTA described as a track fire caused by an arcing cable, which can produce sparks and a strong smell.

One subway rider who saw the fire described the incident on Twitter as a “ball of fire” that came down the tunnel toward the station’s platform around 4:30 p.m., but an MTA spokesman denied there was a large explosion.

The FDNY initially said there were no reports of injuries Wednesday night. On Thursday, an FDNY spokesman confirmed three people were taken to hospitals with minor injuries — among them was Benendez.

Straphangers who started running after witnessing the track fire caused chain-reaction mass panic, according to Benendez. People abandoned belongings and ran for the stairs in an attempt to flee as shouts of “terrorist” and “bombs” filled the air.

“Most people didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “The explosion didn’t happen in the train or on the train. It happened in the tunnel. The fire was really far from where we were.”

Terrified subway riders clogged the stairwell, Benendez said, and when the upward movement stopped, people began to climb over each other in an attempt to get above ground.

“I got trampled,” he said, adding that he had ditched his own belongings during the stampede. “I was running up the stairs and people behind me were screaming, and I thought a terrorist and then I started smelling something. It smelled like really nasty plastic.”

Benendez, of Manhattan, said he tried to climb up the stairs but someone grabbed his ankle and he fell. By the time he was able to get back up, he said he was exhausted.

“I tried to walk home, and I was breathing too heavily. I thought it was my kidneys; my back was pulsating,” he said. “Someone said, ‘you need to go to the hospital.’ I really must have looked like I was out of it.”

Benendez said he walked over to a firefighter, who told him to sit down. He was eventually taken to Mount Sinai St. Luke’s hospital and treated for injuries to his knees, leg, rotator cuff and finger.

While he said he believes the subway riders who touched off the stampede “overreacted,” Benendez also said he was upset with the MTA’s response to the incident.

“I was mad because they said there was no explosions,” he added. “Everyone I talked to said the same thing: that it was red and orange or green and orange and that it was coming toward the station. . . You could tell who saw it and who didn’t see it.”

Service on 2 and 3 trains ran local for about a half an hour because of the track fire, an MTA spokesman said. Service was restored just before 5 p.m.