Panic Or Stampede May Happen Again At Penn Station, Expert Warns

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A false alarm set off a stampede at Penn Station last week, and now some are worried that it could happen again – and that Penn Station is not prepared.

A chain of events led to a panic on Friday. First, a disabled NJ TRANSIT train led to widespread delays and left the train depot packed and crammed.

Then, as frustrated passengers crowded the platforms, Amtrak police used a Taser on a suspect, which some people mistook for the sound of gunshots.

“We received several dozen 9/11 calls from Penn Station and on 34th Street from Seventh Avenue to Broadway. All of those calls were determined to be unfounded,” NYPD Chief William Morris said Friday. “Given our experience dealing with similar situations, we were able to quickly review all the 9/11 calls and determine that there were no actual shots fired.”

But terrified travelers ran in fear for their lives, leaving behind luggage, clothing and even shoes. As CBS2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer reported, at least 16 people were injured as they fled what they thought was a terrorist attack.

“It probably will happen again,” said security expert and former FBI agent Manny Gomez.

But there is even more troubling news. Officials admitted that there needs to be a better plan for dealing with panicked crowds at Penn Station – fears that could easily be set off in the post-9/11 world.

CBS2’s Kramer asked the Steven Santoro, the executive director of NJ TRANSIT, if there was a contingency plan to deal with panicked situations like the one Friday night and also to deal with large crowds.

“So at Penn Station, Amtrak is the owner of that facility,” Santoro said. “What we intend to do based on the last three incidents is to get together with Amtrak and make sure we have the proper crowd control. We need to talk to Amtrak and make sure that there is a proper plan.”

Is there a proper plan? Mike Tolbert – a spokesman for Amtrak, which shares tracks with NJ TRANSIT and the Long Island Rail Road – said: “Friday’s crowding situation remains under review.”

Tolbert later insisted, “There is a communications plan and constant coordination with both LIRR and NJ TRANSIT.”

New Jersey state Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Fair Lawn) said the rail agencies had better hop to it.

“We need to do contingency planning, because these events are going to happen more frequently,” Gordon said.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said there is a plan for crowd problems on the LIRR tracks at Penn.

“What we do when we know there’s an incident that could cause massive crowding, we’ll actually meter off and barricade some entrances so that we can help sort of control and meter the crowding that comes in,” said MTA spokeswoman Beth DeFalco.

Gomez said more needs to be done, including a coordinated communications system for notifying passengers.

“The problem here was there was no information, and the lack of information caused that spark which eventually caused that stampede,” Gomez said.

Kramer asked Santoro whether he was satisfied with the NJ TRANSIT response to the events of Friday night.

“No – obviously, the crowds were still there,” Santoro said. “We need to get with Amtrak and work out a better plan for our customers.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is calling for first all responders at Penn Station to be trained in how to handle an anxious public. A representative for Gov. Chris Christie called the situation “unacceptable.”

The MTA said on Friday night, Amtrak police placed two people into custody for disobeying orders and used a Taser on one of them.

Amtrak later released a statement, saying the suspect was in custody. It also said the station was not evacuated and remained open.

The suspect remained hospitalized for psychological evaluation and was expected to be arrested after being discharged.

Meanwhile Monday, Amtrak said the NJ TRANST train that caused the massive crowding at Penn Station – and left passengers trapped on board for three hours – was stalled by mechanical problems involving the train’s pantograph, or power collector. Amtrak infrastructure was not to blame, the agency said.

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