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The 5:33 Rolls Again, But the Calm of the Commute Has Been Shattered

December 9, 1993

ABOARD THE LONG ISLAND RAIL ROAD (AP) _ In days past, this commuter train from New York City has been a refuge, a nightly sanctuary of safety and calm between two worlds, city and suburb.

Commuters could climb aboard at Penn Station, sink into the seats, pull out a book or a pair of headphones and leave behind the jangle of Manhattan and the stresses of their jobs.

Speeding east, they could watch the hulking apartment buildings give way to neat tract homes, drab factories yield to bright strip malls. After a while, the roll and rhythm might lull them to sleep.

Not on Wednesday, not on the 5:33 to Hicksville.

The landscape changed as usual, but the faces of the passengers remained the same - rigid, almost lifeless portraits of anger, shock and grief.

The night before, a gunman had quietly and calmly walked through the aisles, shooting passengers. Five people were killed and 18 wounded.

On this night, the survivors returned. Some did it out of habit; for others, it was a deliberate act of catharsis.

″I was just reliving it,″ said Esther Confino, who had avoided being shot the night before by falling to the floor by her seat. ″Logically, I was saying, ‘It can’t happen again.’ But I was still reliving it.″

The Long Island Rail Road stationed employees in every car and attempted, with mixed success, to keep a crowd of reporters and photographers from entering the train. Counselors were available to discuss the massacre; police made their presence as conspicuous as possible.

The railroad’s president, Chuck Hoppe, roamed the train, reassuring passengers, listening to their fears.

″I just want to let you know that we’re all hurting today, but we’re doing all we can,″ he said. ″We just want to let you know that this was a freak incident. ... This hasn’t happened for 159 years.″

The LIRR helped build Long Island, which juts out like a tuning fork to the east of New York City. Barbara Kelly, curator of the Long Island Institute at Hofstra University, said the railroad was created around 1830 to haul freight to the ocean for shipment to Boston. After trains began going straight to Boston, the railroad looked for a new cargo: commuters.

It was extravagantly successful. According to the state, 279,000 Long Islanders commute into the New York boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan each day, and 38 percent of them - 106,000 - use the LIRR.

Throughout its history, the LIRR has thrived on the hopes and fears of people for whom the city was too crowded, too noisy, too expensive - and too dangerous.

Now the railroad is in the position of trying to assure passengers that it hasn’t grown too dangerous itself.

Crime on the railroad had actually been declining before Tuesday’s explosion of violence. Hoppe, the railroad president, insisted that passengers would understand the mass shooting was not part of a trend.

When he spoke to passengers on Wednesday’s trip, he said, ″I didn’t hear from anybody who didn’t view this as a random event, that’s just part of society today.″

But while they may have understood the freak nature of the tragedy, the passengers weren’t necessarily able to put it behind them. Some spoke bitterly about the man arrested, Colin Ferguson.

″I’m surprised the man who took the gun from him didn’t shoot him,″ one woman said to two others. They nodded in agreement when she added: ″I would have. I would have shot him you-know-where.″ She aimed an imaginary gun and pulled the trigger. ″Bingo 3/8″

At their stop, the three women, who appeared to be in their 30s, turned almost giddy with relief. ″Yay 3/8 We made it 3/8″ one exulted.

″Not yet,″ one of her seatmates said. ″Not until I walk in the door to my house.″

″And even then you can’t be sure,″ the third woman said.

On Tuesday, Annette Langefeld, a native of Germany who recently moved to Long Island from Queens, ducked and ran to avoid the bullets. Her husband, Helmut, took a later train and ran home from the station, scared that his wife hadn’t made it.

Still, he said at the end of Wednesday’s commute, ″Compared to the city, we still feel this is a beautiful place to live.″

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