The Survivalist

How To Survive a Subway or Skyscraper Attack
How to live through disasters.
Sept. 7 2006 7:48 AM

The Survivalist

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

I was nothing more than a bystander on 9/11, but that was plenty. We watched helplessly from our Brooklyn roof as the towers burned and then collapsed. We didn't lose any family or friends, but like most everyone in New York, we knew people who knew people whose lives were shattered. And most of us instinctively understood right away that the terrorists would be back for more. But for what target exactly? The Empire State Building? Grand Central? The Brooklyn Bridge?

I can't speak for other New York paranoiacs, but I'd put my betting money on the subway. It moves 5 million people a day (up to 2,000 per train), goes deep underwater, and as an added attraction features escape routes with live electric rails. There are six ways to die down there on a normal day; the only reason I can think of not to attack it is that it's like nailing the slow, fat kid in dodge ball—it's too easy. And, after Madrid and London, it's been done. It was reported recently that al-Qaida planned a massive cyanide attack on the New York subway and came very close to launching it in 2003. Even so, there are credible terrorism experts out there who insist that after the successful attack on the World Trade Center, serious terrorists consider a subway system small potatoes. But I think that's folly—a sitting duck is a sitting duck.

Advertisement

It is so easy to wreak havoc down there. In February 2003, * a mentally unstable man brought a lighter and two milk cartons of flammable liquid into a subway car in Daegu, South Korea, and started a fire that killed nearly 200 people and injured many more. In March 1995, five members of the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo punctured bags of sarin nerve gas with sharpened umbrella tips in separate parts of the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 and injuring 5,000. In March 2004, Islamic radicals blew up four commuter trains in Madrid, killing 192 and injuring more than 2,000. In July 2005, suicide bombers in London killed 56 and injured 700 on three subways and a double-decker bus.

Granted, that's only a handful of attacks in many millions of riding hours, so clearly the odds are with riders, even those who take the subway every day. Still, let's imagine a suicide strike against the New York subway—probably a conventional bomb, but perhaps a biological or chemical weapon.

For starters, a question for our bureaucrats: Why don't subway systems do more to prepare riders for an emergency? They should start with more detailed information about emergency scenarios and procedures. What could riders actually expect in the event of a fire? An explosion? A chemical attack? A moderate earthquake? It seems to me that if Americans are willing to fight two or more wars, sacrifice thousands of working-class soldiers' lives, and spend trillions of dollars trying to thwart a terrorist threat of suicide bombings and toxic weapons, the least we could do is mount a serious effort to teach some obviously vulnerable citizens how to recognize and respond to some of the more predictable attacks. I'm not saying everyone would listen, but some would. And we'd be a more sober and prepared nation for it. By and large, American political leaders have apparently decided that civilian readiness is a big fat bummer and might cause people to stop shopping. So, they restrict all their preparations to behind-the-scenes.

This don't-alarm-the-customer strategy flies in the face of a recent finding by the RAND corporation—that an optimum response to catastrophes requires some basic civilian know-how. "In three of the four types of attack—chemical, radiological, and nuclear—the safety and health dangers will arise so fast that individuals will be on their own during the critical early moments," RAND warns."In other words, they will need to take actions to save themselves even before government officials or emergency responders would be able to help or guide them."

Although officials understandably would prefer riders to stay on trains and wait for emergency rescuers if at all possible, it also stands to reason that riders should have some sense of how to escape a train and navigate the tracks if absolutely necessary. What's the best way to break a window to get fresh air? What do underground emergency exits look like? How is it possible to determine if the electrified rails have been turned off? These and other basic survival questions could be publicly addressed in any number of ways—and probably will be after the nation's first big subway catastrophe.

In the New York system, public ignorance is compounded by serious flaws in emergency and even nonemergency communications. "The fact that one in four subway announcements are still unintelligible, that's a bad sign," City Councilman John Liu told the Village Voice in 2005. A report last year by New York's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee criticized subway officials for secrecy and confusion in their emergency communication planning.

Any emergency subway communications plan should include automated announcements tailored to specific dangers:

"Warning! We have detected cyanide gas in the vicinity. Stay low to the ground and evacuate the area as soon as possible. Cover your mouth and nose with your clothing."

Or

"Warning! We have detectedsarin gas in the vicinity. Get as high above the ground as possible and evacuate the area as soon as possible … "

This sort of system will fit nicely with clever inventions by researchers like U.C. San Diego's Gerry Boss, who is pursuing a strategy of using a self-administered antidote to cyanide gas—along the lines of the EpiPen that some people use for allergies. The research so far is promising, he reports, and within a decade, we could have such a device available.

In the meantime, subway riders may want to consider keeping in their commute bags two small and nearly weightless items—a tiny flashlight (such at this one) and a smoke-filter mask (such as these). Even if you pooh-pooh the risks of terrorism, consider the more mundane possibility of a tiny fire quickly becoming an underground catastrophe. It doesn't seem so nuts to have these cheap and simple tools on hand. (These smoke filters can also go a long way to increase one's chances of survival in a common house fire.)

Several hundred vertical feet in the distance, meanwhile, sits the unsuspecting skyscraping office worker, equally vulnerable to being trapped after an accident or attack. Strikingly, the most likely skyscraper calamities have a lot of parallels with the trapped-in-the-subway experience: Light and safe air could be at a premium. Movement might be severely restricted. Immediate evacuation might be imperative. A little advance knowledge and a few personal safety supplies might make a big difference.

Some tall buildings, of course, are well-maintained and meticulously managed, especially post-9/11. Their safety officers are practiced in a full contingency of emergencies and have significant tools and provisions. Still, you need to understand your part, too. Learn about evacuation procedures, including the identity of floor fire marshals, quickest sources of fresh air, alternative exits, and plans to "shelter in place" if necessary. Outfit yourself with your own emergency water, flashlight, and smoke mask. Look here for a more elaborate escape hood. Consider, for the most severe circumstances, your own supply of safe air; also consider an " evacuchute."

And if you discover that your building doesn't have adequate plans, consider acting now to avert disaster later.

Click here for the essential survival shopping list. Next: How to survive an EMP or superworm attack.

Correction, Sept. 8, 2006: The piece misdated the Daegu, South Korea, subway fire. It occurred in 2003, not 1993. (Return to the corrected sentence.) 

David Shenk is author of five books, including The Forgetting and The Immortal Game. He is blogging his next book atgeniusblog.davidshenk.com.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.