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Experts: LIRR still vulnerable to mass shootings, but improvements made

Members of the Metropolitan Transit Authority Police Department

Members of the Metropolitan Transit Authority Police Department patrol the Long Island Rail Road's terminal at Penn Station in Manhattan on Thursday. The railroad is the nation's busiest commuter rail line. Credit: Charles Eckert

As he did most days, Andy Roderick was waiting at the platform of the Merillon Avenue station for his wife's train, the 5:33 p.m. out of Penn Station, to pull in. When it did, he could tell right away that something was wrong.

"All the doors were still closed and people were screaming," recalled Roderick, then an off-duty Long Island Rail Road Police officer. “I banged on the door. I told the people I was a police officer and to let me in. At that point, I’m not really realizing what we had going on there, because it wasn’t clear. There were no shots being fired at the time. But as soon as the door opened, you could tell.

"It was a bloodbath." 

Roderick's discovery of the massacre that occurred onboard the LIRR train 25 years ago, and his arrest of the perpetrator, Colin Ferguson, shaped his police career, which continues today. It also gave him the stark realization that "something could happen at any time, anywhere.”

A quarter-century after the rush-hour slayings, commuter railroads, including the LIRR, remain vulnerable to mass shootings, experts said. But numerous measures taken by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its police force in the wake of the Dec. 7, 1993, massacre, including enhanced training for employees, onboard cameras and free commuting for cops, have helped keep Long Island riders safe, officials said.

“This is what keeps police chiefs up at night around the country. This is what we think about,” said MTA Police Chief Owen Monaghan, who called it a “much different police department” than the one that was in place in 1993.

But Monaghan acknowledged a “porous” system like the LIRR — with 300,000 daily passengers getting on and off trains at 122 stations — can be difficult to protect from an active shooter.

“Is it possible?” Monaghan asked himself. “What we like to think about is doing everything we can to deter and prevent an incident.”

Ferguson walked along the aisle of an eastbound train just after it pulled away from New Hyde Park station and began shooting passengers indiscriminately with a 9 mm pistol. Before being subdued by a group of passengers, Ferguson shot 25 people — killing six and injuring 19.

“There were people that were crouched down in their chairs. There were a few bodies. There were people that were slumped over, people crying and screaming,” Roderick remembered. “It was a horrible, horrible scene.”

After retrieving a pair of handcuffs from an arriving police patrol car, Roderick arrested Ferguson. He later testified in his trial — and was even cross-examined by Ferguson, who served as his own defense attorney. Ferguson was convicted of multiple crimes, including six counts of murder, and is serving a 315-year prison sentence.

Ferguson, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, blamed racism for holding him back in the United States. He had lived on Long Island and in Brooklyn.

Today, Roderick is a detective sergeant and a 28-year veteran of the MTA Police, which was renamed after the LIRR and Metro-North consolidated their police departments in 1998. Roderick said he believes the LIRR remains generally safe for passengers, but acknowledged, "We’re not immune to violence."

Former FBI hostage rescue team member Greg Shaffer said commuter trains remain “one of the most vulnerable” targets for attack, and one of the most challenging to protect.

“For the most part, you’re walking into an environment where there’s no escape. It’s a confined space. It’s moving, so an armed response — a SWAT team — can’t get onboard to eliminate a threat,” said Shaffer, who now heads the Shaffer Security Group, a Dallas-based security-consulting firm. “It really is a difficult situation to control, unless you’re going the route of an airport, where everybody and every bag gets checked . . . I just don’t think the commuter would put up with that.”

Monaghan agreed that inspecting every LIRR passenger is not “feasible,” and said the MTA Police instead relies on “unpredictability,” including in the form of random bag inspections, patrols of stations, and train “step-ons” — officers briefly boarding trains at some stations.

MTA Police officials said they have made several other safety improvements over the past 25 years, including an “extensive active shooter training course” that includes simulations onboard a train car, stronger police weapon firepower, and closer coordination with other law enforcement agencies. That includes police departments in Nassau and Suffolk and with the FBI’s Joint Terrorist Task Force.

LIRR officials said several other enhancements made to its system since 1993 are also making riders safer, including surveillance cameras on trains, enhanced emergency windows, and intercom systems that allow passengers to communicate directly with the locomotive engineer.

One of the most meaningful safety upgrades, MTA officials said, is not visible. A state law passed shortly after Ferguson was convicted granted free rides on the LIRR and Metro-North to police officers.

“On any given car during the rush hour, I would certainly bet that there’s a police officer onboard,” Monaghan said. “It speaks to the unpredictability of patrol.”

Overall, crime on the Long Island Rail Road system, including on trains and at stations, has dropped significantly in recent years, MTA Police have said. From 2010 through 2017, major felonies fell by 28 percent, from 147 to 106, according to MTA Police figures. 

Twenty-five years after her father, James Gorycki, was shot in the heart and killed by Ferguson, Kara Gorycki said she appreciates the efforts made by the MTA to improve safety. But Gorycki, an attorney who lives in the Bronx, said she still can’t help but feel uneasy every time she rides a commuter train.

“That’s, particularly, something that doesn’t go away . . . When I take the Long Island Rail Road, it’s more thinking, ‘Wow’ — thinking of what happened to him, how it happened. How could it have happened?” Gorycki, 43, said in her first interview since the massacre.

“In general, I do feel safe. I feel that the conductors on the railroad do a great job. I feel that they’re on high alert,” she added. “But you do have the sense of — you just don’t know who can come along and end things today.”

Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, said riders “recall the unfortunate event clearly and still mourn with those families who were so directly affected.”

“We ride with our fellow commuters every day, and we must continue to watch out for each other and also press the LIRR and MTA to provide us all with a safe, affordable and efficient commute,” Epstein said.

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