MTA detective reflects on July 4, 2012, stabbing

MTA police Det. John Barnett, who a year ago was stabbed in the eye at the Long Island Rail Road's Jamaica train station, was able to get a shot off and kill the attacker. He has lost the use of one eye, but has remained active and lives with the pain and memories. Videojournalist: Jessica Rotkiewicz (July 3, 2013)

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The humid July air fogged up the left lens of MTA Police Det. John Barnett's protective glasses. But he was unable to notice.

When it was pointed out to him, Barnett removed the glasses and wiped them with a tissue -- briefly exposing a swollen, squinting left eye that's of little use to him. Barnett was stabbed in that eye by a knife-wielding assailant last July 4 during his routine patrol of Jamaica station.

"It's very stressful getting used to being partially blind," Barnett, 46, said in his first interview since the attack. He spoke in an MTA Police station conference room in Central Islip as he sat next to more than a dozen plaques, medals and commendations he has received in the past 12 months.

"I really don't care about the awards or anything. I just want my eye back. I've been feeling that way for the past year."

 

'It felt like an ambush'

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On the morning of July 4, 2012, the 14-year MTA Police veteran from Central Islip was on the street level of Jamaica station, looking forward to finishing his 12-hour shift and getting together with some friends and family to watch the Macy's fireworks show in Manhattan.

Barnett, who also is in the Navy Reserve and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he was chatting with employees at a taxi stand when a man with a knife came "out of nowhere."

"He just ran up and stabbed me," Barnett said of the man, identified as Edgar Owens, 46, of the Bronx, who police said was emotionally disturbed and had a history of threatening and assaulting law enforcement officers.

Owens plunged his knife into Barnett's left eye, then kept attacking.

"It felt like an ambush," Barnett said. "I expected that when I was in Afghanistan, but I never expected something like that at the Long Island Rail Road's Jamaica station."

With blood pouring out of his eye socket, Barnett said, he pushed Owens back, drew his gun and shouted: "Police! Don't move! Drop your weapon!"

When Owens didn't obey, Barnett fired four times, with three shots hitting Owens, killing him.

"It's like a split-second decision. And that split-second decision is based on your police training," said Barnett.

He recalled being surrounded by hundreds of LIRR morning riders when he was attacked. "I was in fear for the safety of the commuters, because if he would stab a cop, he would easily kill a commuter. That was my number one concern."

MTA Police Chief Michael Coan said Barnett's response was "nothing short of heroic."

Owens' knife fractured Barnett's skull, damaged nerves and sliced through his retina, destroying it. He underwent a six-hour surgery at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in Queens after the attack, and four more surgeries since then -- each with the hope of restoring some sight. But he sees nothing out of his left eye except the hint of light.

 

Staying active

For the career law enforcement officer who previously worked for the New York Police Department, becoming blind in one eye was devastating. Barnett, who was promoted from officer to detective in December, has been unable to return to work at a job he said he loves so much that he routinely worked seven days a week.

While he waits for word on whether he'll ever be able to go back to work, Barnett said he keeps busy, trying to raise money for various charities, including some for blind groups and retinal research.

And as he did on the day he was attacked, Barnett relies on his military background to stay grounded.

"I'm meeting with amputees . . . Just seeing worse injuries than mine, where people have had both legs blown off, it makes me less stressed," he said. "I feel blessed just to be alive."

Partial blindness has also affected Barnett's other passions, including playing golf with his son, Zion, 12, competing in chess tournaments and studying for an online master's degree in criminal justice from Ashworth College.

Trying to remain active, Barnett ran in this year's Boston Marathon -- staying on the left side of the route to avoid bumping into runners he could not see. He was a mile from the finish line when two pressure cooker bombs exploded, killing three people and injuring 260.

"That just restarted the nightmares and the trauma all over again," said Barnett, who sees a psychiatrist to treat post-traumatic stress disorder from his attack. "It was a setback."

Barnett says he's been told that with advancements in stem cell technology, he may be able to recover some use of his eye in five to 10 years. But if the condition of his eye worsens, it may have to be removed and replaced with a glass eye.

The challenge of the past 12 months has been made worse by what he said is constant pain in the left side of his face, for which he receives weekly acupuncture treatments.

"It feels like if somebody punched you in the face and the pain never goes away," Barnett said.

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