Last night, Tahiti Huetter was headed home to Brooklyn on a southbound N train. It was just before 9 p.m., and as the train was pulling into the 14th Street-Union Square station, she noticed a young woman stumbling towards the doors. A tall male passenger "started talking at her—nothing audible from my seat which was two seats away facing the opposite direction of them. As they both stepped off, a strange smoke like substance was in the air. Another passenger sitting to the right off me across from the doors stood up and started to pound on the doors. 'Did you see what just happened? He put a powder in her face and its burning!'"
Huetter, a production coordinator, recounted, "Immediately everyone seated within a 20 foot vicinity including me started to cough. We all looked at each other, not sure what to do." Nell Casey, Gothamist food editor, happened to be on an uptown R train at Canal Street around the time this happened. Her train was halted, as were downtown trains, as an investigation was being conducted for a "sick passenger" at the Union Square station.
Meanwhile, Huetter continued on her train ride home, in shock with other passengers, "It happened incredibly fast." By the time she got home, she was still very concerned about what happened, so she called 911. The operator dispatched a police officer to her home, but that didn't have the results she was expecting: "The police said there was no report to be filed. Anything that happens on the train is separate, considered 'transit affairs' basically and cops outside of the train or ones who report to a home can't do anything at this point. My option is to try go back to the train station or nearest precinct to talk to someone."
However, Sgt. Paul Grattan Jr. of the NYPD Transit Bureau said while he couldn't comment on Huetter's incident ("I wasn't there"), a report should have been made. He confirmed there was an "OC 'pepper' spray incident last night—apparently the victim and attacker had been arguing (possibly over who bumped whom)—and the male passenger was arrested. Grattan said, "Thankfully such incidents are rare, though OC spray in an enclosed space can cause the effects your reader described. Of course, incidents like this should be reported immediately—and riders should call 911, when possible, and alert the conductor immediately so they may summon police and medical help."
Grattan said that if a passenger who witnesses a crime on the subway isn't able to get off the train immediately, the passenger can call 911 after exiting the subway and an officer can come and take the report. Why the officer who went to Huetter's home declined to take a report is unclear, but this is not the first time police declined to take a report after a subway rider was sprayed with a substance.
As for what subway riders should do while they are still on the train, MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg explained, "Never pull the emergency brake unless a moving train will hurt someone (like if someone is caught in the doors and the train starts to pull away). Otherwise you just immobilize the train for 10 mins. And opening the windows may create more wind to stir up what's inside the car—not to mention, if the air is bad outside the car, you don't want to let it in.
"If train is still in station, step out and get conductor's attention—shout, wave arms, whatever. If train is moving, do it at the next stop. On new cars, push the red intercom button and tell the conductor anytime. They're fastest way to get help—they can radio the Rail Control Center, which has a direct line to police, fire, EMS or whatever else you need."
Grattan encourages anyone who thinks they've witnessed a crime to tell the police, whether an officer at the station, at a precinct or by calling 911. The public "can't rely on one person to make the report—if 50 people are calling 911, then we'll have better descriptions" of suspects, he said, and the police can construct what may have happened more easily.
Huetter is glad that the attacker was arrested, "I feel terrible for not going back. It's definitely changed my perspective about using the subway and being aware of what is going on with myself and especially others." She added, "If the [spray] was enough to make part of a cabin start coughing, imagine what happened to that woman."