The damp musty air of the tunnel blew softly through the open windows of the subway car. With yellow lights streaming by the dirty glass windows, the train roared along through the darkness of Manhattan’s underbelly.
The E-train was packed with rush hour commuters that afternoon; all hoping to get off at 34th street and quickly make their way to Penn Station. With all the windows of the subway car wide open, the breeze coming from the tunnel did little to cool down the hot humid air inside.
You see in the days before air conditioning, the windows inside the subway cars were always pulled down. Making the sounds and the smell of the subway yours for the taking, even if they were sometimes horrific, and still give you nightmares thirty years later.
I remember it was somewhere just before 42nd street when the train made a sudden stop inside the dark tunnel. With over two hundred commuters packed inside its steel body, you could hear the groans of many who were not happy with another rush hour delay as the E-train sat idle on the tracks.
And the strange thing was there were no other trains moving either, making it all seem so oddly quiet. So we just sat there for at least an hour, as the only sounds being made were that from rustling newspapers and occasional muttering from some un-happy MTA customers inside our car.
The police radios were the first thing we all heard from the outside. Cracking in the darkness, they just echoed through the hallows of the empty tunnel alongside of us. Then there were the beams of flashlights that danced along the dirty stained walls of the tunnel. And finally, the voices the police that were holding them, marching into the darkness under Eight Avenue, they were searching for something.
No, this was not just a “red light”, no, this was going to be a while I thought.
“Police” “Police” “come out where we can see you”
The flash was the first thing I remember, followed by the screaming. Yes, the screaming that I can still recall like it was yesterday.
“Ahhhhhhh, Ahhhhhhh, no, no,” “Please ma ma, no” “Ma ma” “Ma ma”
With frozen faces and frozen limbs everyone just listened to the screaming and didn't say a word.
Then we smelled the burning hair, it just came through the windows of the subway car and entered our lungs.
No, there was no escaping, Because there was nowhere to run.
“Please noooo, please nooo” “Ma, ma please” “Oh, ma ma”
The silence inside our subway car was maddening as we all listened to the sounds of a man dying on the subway tracks beside us. Over two hundred commuters, and not one person making a sound as “death” echoed inside our subway car. Yes, they say a dying man will always call for his mother, and today would be no different.
The story about that man dying made a small corner in the Daily News the next day. Something about a robbery suspect that died when he touched the third rail running away form the police.
Yes, long before air conditioning we kept all the windows of the subway car open. And sometimes nightmares came through those windows, and screams that you can never forget.