As the year began, New Yorkers shuddered at a subway crime straight out of urban nightmares – the death of a woman shoved onto the tracks by a disturbed stranger. The city’s new mayor vowed to "make sure New Yorkers feel safe in our subway system."
But commuters Tuesday morning faced an attack that evoked many riders’ deepest fears. A rush-hour train car filled with smoke as it pulled into a Brooklyn station. Gunshots rang out – at least 33 of them – wounding at least 10 people.
Frightened riders fled, and so did the gunman, who remains at large.
Much is still unknown about the attack, including whether it was an act of terrorism. At a Tuesday evening press conference, authorities said they were looking for Frank R. James, 62, who they say rented a van linked to the shooting.
It was a searing reminder of the city’s unyielding battle with gun violence and the specter of terror-like attacks that hangs over New York City – particularly the subway system that is its transportation backbone.
Police and security officials have made many attempts to harden the city against such attacks, putting officers on trains and platforms, installing cameras and even doing rare spot checks for weapons on passengers entering some stations.
Yet the sprawling system, with its nearly 500 stations, largely remains like the city streets themselves: Too big to guard and too busy to completely secure.
In the hours after the shooting, with the gunman still on the loose, commuters like Julia Brown had little choice but to keep riding the rails.
"It’s the only way to get home – other than the express bus and then another bus and then another bus," said Brown, who works in Manhattan. "I lived through 9/11. I lived through the blackout. You just have to be as safe as you can, and just be mindful around your environment."
Mayor Eric Adams vowed after Tuesday’s mass shooting to keep fighting to make the system safe.
"We’re going to double down on our patrol strength," the mayor told CBS News. Even before Tuesday’s violence, the mayor had vowed to increase subway patrols and launch sweeps of subway stations and trains to remove homeless people using them as shelters.
Gov. Kathy Hochul posted a photo on social media showing her riding a train hours after the shooting.
Public officials say the transportation system is crucial in the city’s recovery from COVID-19. During the height of the pandemic, many New Yorkers avoided mass transit. Typical daily ridership fell from 5.5 million riders to less than a tenth of that.
But as more people return to offices, ridership is increasing. On Monday, estimated ridership was 3.1 million, according to the MTA, which operates the system.
In a rambling video posted on YouTube, James replayed recent speeches by the mayor and governor and mocked their efforts to address violence as weak and futile.
"Their plan is doomed for failure," James said in the video.
In the 1980s, New York City’s subways were a symbol of urban disorder: graffiti-covered, crime-plagued and shunned by tourists.
Like the rest of the city, though, the subways have cleaned up their act in recent decades. Before COVID-19 hit, the main problem with the trains wasn’t crime but overcrowding and breakdowns related to aging infrastructure.
After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, New Yorkers learned to live with the worry that the subways or other parts of the city could be a terror target.
In 2017, an Islamic State group sympathizer detonated a pipe bomb strapped to his chest in a subway station near the Port Authority Bus Terminal, injuring several bystanders.
That same year, the city began expanding the use of vehicle-blocking sidewalk barriers after two attacks. In one, a man who prosecutors said was supportive of IS drove a rented truck down a bicycle path along the Hudson River, killing eight people and maiming others. In another, a psychologically disturbed man drove a car at high speed into pedestrians in Times Square, killing one and injuring as many as 20.
In 2016, a man who prosecutors said sympathized with Usama bin Laden set off homemade bombs in Manhattan and New Jersey, injuring some bystanders, before being captured in a shootout with police. And in 2010 a man tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square, only to have it fizzle.
Christopher Herrmann, a former city police officer who is now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said episodes like Tuesday’s shooting are bound to provoke a new round of anxiety, especially among people who use the subway.
"With 9/11, you have a specific target: the World Trade Center," Herrmann said. "A lot of people can wrap their heads around that."
But the seeming randomness of this week’s attack "really invokes a lot of fear and worry," he said, "because most people don’t consider themselves a target."
During Tuesday’s evening commute, some subway riders expressed concern while others shrugged it off as an everyday risk.
"Sadly, this is the society we’re in," said rider Blanca Palacio. "We don’t know when it is going to happen, where it is going to happen. It can happen anywhere. We’re taking a risk every day, and it’s not just in the subway. It’s everywhere."
Alexi Vizhnay considered boarding a ferry across the East River after work Tuesday afternoon but decided to take his chances on the subway. It was simply the most efficient way to get home to Queens.
"There’s a lot of things that happen out of your control," he said. "As tragic as it is, all I can do is remind myself to be vigilant and be cautious."