New York Subway Security Gets Second Look

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American cities are working to anticipate terror attacks on subways, and are looking to the London attacks for lessons on mass transit security. Mike Pesca reports from New York on one city's state of preparedness.


I'm Alex Chadwick. This is DAY TO DAY.

In London, some commuters say they're wary of returning to their trains and buses today. Questions remain about how well the capital's public transport is prepared for a catastrophic attack. As DAY TO DAY's Mike Pesca reports, yesterday's bombing raised questions about mass transit in American city centers, too.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Within minutes of the first bomb explosion in the London Underground, Monica Rosser(ph), an American working in England, was turned away from her usual subway station. She, like most of the people around her, simply walked over to the bus stop and began boarding the by now very crowded double-deckers. Soon thereafter she got a call from her husband Martin(ph).

Ms. MONICA ROSSER: While I was traveling, I was talking back and forth with Martin and, at one point, he did tell me, like, `Oh, there has been an explosion on a bus.' I mean, that was after I'd already been on the bus for about 40 minutes, on different buses, and he's like, `You know, I just think you should just walk.'

PESCA: That the advice to bus riders came from family and friends watching the news on TV, not from officials, will no doubt be well-examined in the upcoming days. All of the attacks in the West attributed to al-Qaeda have followed a pattern of multiple parts of the transportation system being hit in quick succession. Four planes were hijacked in America, four trains attacked in Madrid, and in London, three trains and one bus.

Frances Edwards-Winslow is the director of emergency services for the city of San Jose, California, and co-author of numerous reports advising cities on the best practices for terrorism preparedness.

Ms. FRANCES EDWARDS-WINSLOW (Director of Emergency Services for San Jose, California): With al-Qaeda, their model seems to be multiple attacks within a very short period of time. That still doesn't suggest that the default emergency plan should be that the first thing that happens, you shut everything down, because, unfortunately, we have pranks and pipe bombs and small explosive devices that go off in the United States from time to time on a not irregular basis. And if we stopped all trains at every time one of them was found or every time we had some small explosive device go off, the level of disruption would become fantastic.

PESCA: In March of 2004, New York, using a US Department of Homeland Security grant, drilled for a subway attack. Officials concocted a scenario of multiple subterranean explosions which would result in 40 deaths and hundreds of casualties in the subways, circumstances remarkably similar to what actually happened in London.

But what couldn't be simulated was the panic and uncertainty of a real attack. Plus, there is no single pattern to train for. In Madrid, for instance, all the attacks happened within a two-minute period. Yesterday, the explosions occurred over 56 minutes. Still, Frances Edwards-Winslow says training responders and transit workers helps, as evidenced by reports from London of orange-vested conductors leading passengers off mangled subway cars.

The last part of this equation is for the public to train itself. Beyond the ubiquitous warning from officials to be aware of your surroundings, Edwards-Winslow offers these specifics for subway riders.

Ms. EDWARDS-WINSLOW: There are clearly marked exits and they're painted with glow-in-the-dark paint, and there are windows that clearly have indicators that this window can be removed in an emergency. But I would bet you that even though it's very clearly marked and the people see it every day--I mean, you can't miss it because it's Day-Glo yellow paint--I wonder how many people pay attention.

PESCA: A bill before Congress proposes a $50 million cut in funding for security upgrades to local transit agencies. Experts say in order to lessen the vulnerability of mass transportation, it is the masses themselves who must become more responsible for their surroundings. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY returns in a moment.

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