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One Killed, More Than 140 Injured As Fire Strikes NYC Subway Line

December 28, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ An electrical fire spread choking smoke through a subway tunnel today, killing a commuter and injuring more than 140, officials said. Terrified passengers screamed and prayed out loud.

Transit Authority spokeswoman Caren Gardner said the death occurred after a weather-related fire broke out on the electrified third rail in the subway tunnel underneath downtown Brooklyn.

″We really thought we were gone, that we wouldn’t see New Year’s,″ said Gertrude Hoyte, a 51-year-old Brooklyn resident who was on her way to work in Manhattan.

She described how smoke filled the subway cars, causing people to panic and several to vomit into their newspapers.

″People were screaming, ’We’re going to die 3/8‴ said passenger Dana Sullivan, 28, of West Islip. Others were praying out loud, she said.

The accident occurred about 9:10 a.m. in the tunnel used by the No. 2 and No. 3 subway lines, going through downtown Brooklyn and then under the East River toward Manhattan.

Authorities said 145 people were injured, all apparently from smoke inhalation. So many were taken to hospitals - 132 in all - that city buses had to be used.

The identity of the dead man, described as a subway rider, was not released.

Medical staff at Long Island College Hospital managed to revive a woman whom authorities at the scene had believed to be dead, but her condition remained grave, hospital officials said.

″The prognosis does not look favorable for her,″ Dr. Neil Flomenbaum, chairman of emergency medicine at the hospital, said this afternoon.

It was one of two serious transit accidents this morning. In Boston, more than 30 people were injured when a trolley car slammed into the rear of a stopped car in an underground station near Boston Common.

Authorities in New York estimated that there were 300 to 400 people aboard the train most severely affected by the smoke.

Naomi Smalls-Watson, 23, of Brooklyn said she was sitting in the first car of the train when she ″heard a popping noise and then a whoosh.″

″Then there was another big boom and people started panicking,″ she said.

At that point, the subway tunnel began filling with smoke, so much that passengers could not see anything outside the train, she said.

″A lot of people passed out,″ she said.

Witnesses said some passengers considered trying to open train doors but were convinced by fellow passengers that it would only worsen the smoke. Eventually, the train was backed up to a station that was farther away from the fire and the passengers were able to leave the train.

The fire on the third rail apparently occurred when snow from streets above leaked into the subway system and onto wires on the tracks near the Clark Street station, the last station in Brooklyn before the train goes under the river, Gardner said. She said it’s possible the snow grounded some heavy-duty electrical cables against the third rail.

Some 30 firefighting units responded in Manhattan and Brooklyn, said department spokesman Joe McGee. He said the smoke condition was heavier on the Brooklyn side.

By late morning, dozens of people were being treated or comforted in the lobbies of downtown Brooklyn buildings. Some passengers sat wearily in the lobby of a Crosslands Bank as employees gave them cups of water; others received oxygen from emergency personnel.

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