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The subway fire that killed a motorman early Friday and injured 16 other people came as transit workers grappled with what they called rising dangers on the job brought on by the coronavirus crisis.
Multiple sources told THE CITY that authorities discovered a charred shopping cart with a possible accelerant inside the second car of a northbound No. 2 train that filled with smoke and flames as it pulled into the Central Park North-110th Street station at 3:14 a.m — around the same time as three other fires in and around the subway system.
The train operator — identified by Transport Workers Union Local 100 as Garrett Goble, 36, of Brooklyn — was found unresponsive on the tracks after authorities said he and another transit worker who was onboard as a passenger helped riders evacuate.
Goble’s death came during a week in which an MTA bus driver and a subway conductor succumbed to COVID-19.
“This has already been a devastating week for New York City Transit and this is another horrific moment for our family,” said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit.
“For this to happen, after we lost two of our union brothers to the coronavirus, is hard to comprehend,” said Tony Utano, president of TWU Local 100. “A young man serving the public during a national crisis was killed at just 36 years of age.”
Troubling Track Incidents
Some transit workers told THE CITY they felt increasingly unsafe as the coronavirus has led to an 87% ridership plunge that’s left many subway stations desolate.
The system recorded more than 80 incidents of people on the tracks so far this month — including one around 2 a.m. Sunday, near where Goble would die days later.
While the number of track incursions was roughly on par with previous months, the incidents rattled workers, who said they feel more exposed amid the pandemic, the ridership drop and what they called an increase in people taking late-night refuge in trains.
“I’ve seen people on the trains just flicking lighters, setting papers on fire and there’s nothing done about it,” Jamar Pearson, a train operator, told THE CITY. “It gets overlooked as a problem because no one considers it an issue until something happens.”
“The situation on the trains is out of control,” said Crystal Young, a conductor on the No. 2 line. “They could be homeless, they could be emotionally disturbed, but they know they’re not going to be removed from the trains, so they’ll ride all day.”
Transit workers, as THE CITY reported this week, have also been demanding masks to wear while on duty. MTA officials announced Friday night that they were planning to give out 75,000 masks to the “heroic frontline workforce” operating subways, buses and commuter rails.
The MTA said the masks will be made available to employees who choose to wear them, while pointing out that medical guidance continues to be that the shields “are not recommended as protection against COVID-19.”
“That said, I know wearing a mask at this uncertain time offers additional comfort to many of our employees, and I am grateful we are able to provide that,” said MTA Chairman Patrick Foye.
A distribution plan hadn’t been finalized, though the agency said the supply is expected to increase, allowing for weekly replenishment. The exact type of mask to be supplied wasn’t immediately clear.
Four Fires Along Line
Meanwhile, Brian McGee, a deputy chief of detectives with the NYPD, said arson investigators are trying to determine whether three other subway fires that occured around the same time as Goble’s death are tied to each other.
According to an internal MTA incident report obtained by THE CITY, at 3:02 a.m., a conductor on the No. 1 line reported light smoke inside the 86th Street station. Eight minutes later, the report says a conductor on a No. 2 train reported a trash-can fire on a platform at 96th Street.
At 3:18 a.m., the incident report says, Goble notified the Rail Control Center of a “very loud noise” coming from a subway car and that “thick black smoke was also coming from under the car.”
A small fire later followed at street level outside the 116th Street stop on the No. 2 and 3 lines.
“I’m not saying they are connected, but it’s something we have to investigate,” McGee said.
“This incident once again points out the many life-threatening dangers that await transit workers across the city when they go to their jobs every day, 24 hours a day,” Utano said. “This is a sad day for our entire city. ”
The MTA is offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in Goble’s death. Crime Stoppers and the New York City Police Foundation added $2,500 to the reward.
“These may be the darkest days that TWU Local 100 has gone through,” Utano said.
Pearson, a friend of Goble’s, was in a train at the 86th Street station on the No. 1 line when the deadly fire started.
“George was a really nice young man,” he said. “He made the station stop in order for people to get off that train. He was a standup guy.”
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