Offgrid Survival What If Your Subway is Attacked With Chemical Weapons?
The aftermath of a terrorist attack involves terrified crowds running...
In This Article
Illustrations by Joe Oesterle
The rhythmic vibrations of the subway car had almost lulled me back to sleep, even though the cabin was crowded with morning commuters. Strong scents wafted back and forth. The cologne and perfume of the passengers, as well as the countless cups of coffee, created a riot of scents assaulting my nose. I tried to ignore the odors in my groggy state, shutting my eyes and blocking everything out. It was working, until the passengers at the end of the subway car started screaming and a new smell caught my attention.
Nostrils stinging, I began to process the new information. My eyes opened as the stinging sensation traveled from my nose into the back of my throat. Scent can trigger memory, and as I fumbled for recognition, it hit me — bleach, it smelled like chlorine bleach! As frightened people began to rush past me, I wondered if this would be my last subway ride.
For this episode of RECOIL OFFGRID’s “What If?” column, the editors gave us a nasty urban nightmare. We had to work our way through a terrorist attack in a crowded subway car. Continuing our new format, the editors asked us to explain what we would personally do in these emergency situations. This isn’t some random character stumbling through a scenario, this is exactly what we’d do in a packed subway car full of panicked people and poisonous fumes. Try not to hold your breath while reading!
Traveling to work
New York City
Rainy; high 47 degrees F, low 39 degrees F
The Setup: There’s been recent news of intercepted communications that an unnamed terrorist group is threatening to attack a major New York City subway line with a chemical gas attack. It has been two months since the initial reports, but media coverage has subsided so you begin to assume the reports may have been exaggerated. While these current events are still unfolding, you’re attending a daylong lecture at Columbia University.
Since you don’t own a car and the subway is your usual method of travel, you board the subway near your home at the Bedford Park Station at around 7 a.m. on your way to the 116th Street station near the University. The train is full of the usual commuters and nothing seems out of place.
The Complication: After the train stops at the 155th Street station and then resumes its course, you notice a commotion in the car behind you. People start fleeing that car and entering yours, covering their mouths with their hands and clothing, acting like they’re in pain and choking. At this moment, you notice a distinct acrid smell and yellow-green haze that, based on your research and knowledge, you believe to be chlorine gas.
You suspect your subway has been the victim of a chlorine gas attack/domestic terror incident. The conductor is obviously not aware of what’s going on. What can you do? There may be multiple chemical gas attacks happening simultaneously in various cars; you’re just not sure yet. What steps can you take to help protect yourself, save lives, and alert authorities?
The sprawling public transportation system of New York City safely moves over 1-billion people a year, but with the threat of a terrorist attack in my mind I’d think long and hard whether to ride a subway car with that looming threat. Sure, more people die every year from automobile accidents than train wrecks and terrorist attacks combined — so much so that car accident fatalities rarely make the news. But that doesn’t mean that I’d be eager to get into a crowded underground facility with limited exit strategies.
In my preparation, job one is to study the subway transit system. Learn its routes, its safety procedures, and escape routes, with particular attention to obvious bottlenecks or other points that would hinder evacuation.
My second specific piece of preparation for this type of threat would be to research previous terrorist attacks on subway cars and trains. In 2004 in Madrid, terrorists set off 10 backpack bombs on the commuter rail network, killing 191 people and wounding more than 1,800. One year later, a sarin gas attack occurred in a Tokyo subway. This attack was perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) cult, a group of doomsday fanatics with thousands of followers all over Japan. Their insane leader, Shoko Asahara, gained access to the wealth of his followers and employed a chemist to create the sarin gas weapons that killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000. While the motives of these nut jobs are part of the research, their methods would be my primary area of focus.
My next job would be to research respiratory devices. Many of us include simple masks (like an N95 mask) in our everyday preps, but it’s largely useless in a gas attack. Vapors, fumes, and gases go right through the mask — just like the air we breathe. And even though N95 masks will filter out anthrax and the cough droplets that transport the flu virus, you’ll need something made for gases to remove them from the air you’ll breathe.
One commonly available filter that can be found at most home improvement stores and attached to half masks or full face masks is the 3M Multi Gas/Vapor Cartridge (filter #60926). This affordable cartridge can attach to a variety of respirator masks and remove chlorine, hydrogen chloride, chlorine dioxide, plus a number of other nasty chemicals. Just remember that a mask is only as effective as the surface it seals against. Mustache, no problem. Soul patch, OK. But full beards keep the rubber mask from sealing against your skin.
As my final prep for close-quarters travel on a subway, I’d want a city-friendly EDC kit. This assortment of everyday carry gear would include a whistle, a flashlight, a first-aid kit, and a small pry bar. It wouldn’t hurt to have an element that prepares you for a possible chemical attack too (besides the respirator). A product called Reactive Skin Decontamination Lotion is now available to civilians. RSDL is the only decontaminant cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to remove or neutralize chemical warfare agents such as tabun, sarin, soman, cyclohexyl sarin, VR, VX, mustard gas, and T-2 toxin. It’s a simple little packet of lotion-like neutralizer. Each kit comes with instructions and a training product, so you can get a feel for it through realistic practice. It also comes with a packet of decontaminant for one person, which removes the chemical agent from the skin in a single step. It won’t help with our chlorine gas scenario, but against other agents — it’s better to have it and not need it ….
After deciding to take the subway, my first safety precaution would be to choose what I perceive to be the safest car on the train. But which car should I choose?
Conventional wisdom would lead us to believe that the front and rear cars of a subway train (or other type of train) are the most dangerous places in a crash. The front car would take the brunt of the damage in the event of a head-on collision, with the rear car taking damage if the train were rear-ended. But a terrorist attack is a very different event compared to a train wreck. In the event of a terrorist attack, the most crowded car would likely be the most tempting target.
Just one example of this sinister planning can be seen in the London subway bombings of July 7, 2005. In this attack, three suicide bombers detonated explosives onboard subway trains during the busy morning commute. While a number of people were also killed and injured that morning in a double-decker bus bombing perpetrated by a fourth group member, the subway portion of the attack killed 39 people and wounded hundreds more. Each of the three subway bombers sat or stood near the train doors, where the highest concentration of passengers would be located.
From my perspective, the least populated car is the least desirable target for someone intent on causing mass casualties. Once onboard the undesirable subway car, I’d take history’s lesson to heart and stay away from the double doors in the car. Sure, this would typically result in more walking, but that’s a small price to pay for a greater margin of safety. And whether I was in the subway in NYC or in a tube in any other part of the world, I’d find the emergency exits and alarms.
Once I’ve chosen my seat on the unpopular car (story of my life), I’d still remain vigilant for suspicious activity. In a less populated car, there would be fewer people to observe for any odd behavior or packages. This quieter area might be chosen as a setup or staging area, where a terrorist could potentially prepare to launch an attack.
In the midst of a chlorine gas attack on a subway, with the circumstances still unclear, the first thing I’d do is use the passenger alarm or passenger emergency intercoms to notify the train crew that something was seriously wrong. I’d have scouted out the location of these when boarding. Once the commotion started and I smelled a noxious gas, that’s the time to hit the “panic button,” though I’d want to avoid actual panic internally and avoid the frightened throngs of people that may be rushing my way. I could also try 911 on my phone, but there are no guarantees with mobile phone reception in a tunnel. It’s also possible that the systems that support the phones would be flooded with calls during a crisis.
As for my position, I wouldn’t want to be far from an emergency exit, but at the same time I wouldn’t want to be in a spot where a crowd could crush me up against a wall or unopened door.
I definitely wouldn’t try to get down low toward the floor. First, gaseous weapons wouldn’t necessarily rise like smoke, and secondly, I don’t want to be trampled.
Once I sounded the alarm, I wouldn’t expect the train to stop between stations. If I had a multi-gas half-mask, I’d don the respirator and hide the mask by pulling up my shirt. I wouldn’t want desperate people to rip the mask from my face. With the mask covered by clothing, I’d look like everyone else.
Without a multi-gas respirator, I’d have few choices for protection. I could use clothing as a filter and also attempt to limit my breathing. I could also try to move to an area with clearer air. If the agent gives any visual cues, such as dust, haze, or color — you could move the other way. Once the car stops (on route or at a station), I’d get out and seek medical attention. I may not immediately notice signs or symptoms of poisoning, so outside help is definitely warranted.
Chlorine gas forms hydrochloric acid on contact when it’s inhaled. Its victims suffocate to death from fluid accumulating in their damaged lungs, and escape is difficult when afflicted with burning, tearing eyes. There has been increased chatter of credible threats, and you know the subway has been targeted before. Preparing for your commute under these circumstances isn’t being overly paranoid, it’s the responsible thing to do.
Packing for the commute: Many discreet tactical bags, eschew an overtly military look, while still featuring plenty of rapid-access pouches, MOLLE, and Velcro in the interior to hold all your essential gear. While many are primarily designed to facilitate the quick draw of a firearm, in this situation having instant access to the key contents such as those below can be just as life saving.
Flashlight. In a confined space, a little bit of smoke or gas can severely limit your visibility. Also, yellow/amber lenses seem to reflect less (or appear to reflect less) than standard white light on particulates in the air (smoke and fog).
A cell phone. Remember, many phones have a flashlight feature. While not as effective as a tactical flashlight, it’s another resource. Although your phone probably has a digital compass and GPS, the only directions you need to know are a route away from the source and up the stairs.
Backup power. A charger that’s rugged, drop-proof, water-resistant, and has a built-in light can serve as an emergency backup to your primary light. Redundancy is always good. Aside from your phone, it can also power a rechargeable flashlight, should the situation get prolonged.
Knife or multitool. Assuming local laws permit carrying such an item, something sturdy that can pry and has a glass breaker is ideal. The glass on the trains is heavy duty and won’t shatter as easily as a car windshield. They also have a plastic film that’ll keep the glass in place to avoid injuring others when blown out. For these reasons, they’ll require a forceful shove or kick after being shattered. You may have to kick through broken glass, and in the worst case, walk on the tracks.
Footwear. I’d wear a trail running shoe that’s sturdy enough for climbing but comfortable to run fast in.
Gloves. Another carry item to consider is heavy work gloves. These will come in handy in case you have to hold onto a windowpane studded with broken glass and for climbing over debris once the train stops.
Bottled water mixed with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). This mixture can be used to flush your face and wash out eyes if they’re tearing and getting blurry.
Respiratory protection. A CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear) mask isn’t as common or easy to carry as the above items, but there really is no safe solution that can be improvised. There are historic accounts of soldiers using urine-soaked socks to combat chlorine gas in WWI. This doesn’t work well in actual practice (not enough ammonia) or logistically on a subway with only seconds of warning.
In a pinch, you could pour the water and bicarbonate solution over a thick cotton rag and attempt to breathe through it. You’d probably still get sick, but maybe not as sick as having nothing. Wool shouldn’t be used as it’s too difficult to breathe through when wet. Another problem is that holding the rag tightly to your nose and mouth would tie up your hands, impeding your escape.
Emergency escape hoods. These are a more practical alternative to carrying a bulky full gas mask on a commute all the time. More importantly, when an attack happens, you’ll have little to no warning and will need to resort to something you can deploy and don quickly. Emergency escape hoods are one-time-use head coverings with built-in filters and an elastic neck seal. It’s as fast and simple as opening the wrapper and pulling it over your head. They’re packaged small enough to fit in your bag, briefcase, or in a pouch on your belt. Emergency hoods provide chemical air filtration for 15 to 60 minutes, enough to escape a situation. They should deploy in one step, without straps to adjust. You should look for hoods that are CBRN-rated and “NIOSH-approved” (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). The Avon NH 15 and RSG CE 200 series are a few models that fit this need nicely.
Like all emergency equipment, you should train and familiarize yourself with their use before you use them in a real situation.
For even more portability, rapid deployment, and a quarter of the cost, Scott Safety has an alternative — the Emergency Escape Mouth Bit Respirator. It’s like the mouthpiece of a snorkel with a filter attached, so it won’t protect your eyes and face. You could put on swim or ski goggles if using this option.
It’s important to point out that gas masks and hoods filter air but don’t create oxygen. In a scenario of a confined space where a poison gas is displacing atmospheric gases, this deadly fact should be kept in mind. A solution to this and alternate option to an emergency hood is to carry a small portable air supply. The aviation industry uses the HEED (Helicopter Emergency Egress Device) and the diving industry uses a version called Spare Air. It’s basically a small scuba tank the size of the water bottle you carry to the gym, so it’ll fit in your commute bag. It supplies approximately 30 breaths or up to 3 minutes of air. Considering the average subway stops are two minutes apart, it should give you what you need to get out.
Swim or ski goggles. These are useful if you don’t opt for the escape hood, or as a backup to it. They can help to minimize burning to your eyes from the irritating gases, so you can preserve your vision while looking for an escape. Mucous membranes absorb faster than skin, so they may decrease the possible surface area for entry while protecting your eyes from burns and blinding. It’s not what will kill you, but being blind in the subway might.
I wouldn’t carry a chemical suit as it takes minutes to get into and tape up. Many aren’t available commercially anyway without special certifications and substantial training to use properly. It’s impractical to don in a subway car full of panicking people and will waste precious time. Suiting up can take several minutes, whereas escaping can take seconds.
Know your environment: The NYC subway system maintains two separate fleets with at least three different model cars. The dimensions of subway cars vary from 51 to 75 feet in length and 8 to 10 feet in width. Know how many steps this translates to for you. On average it’ll be approximately 22 to 32 steps in length, depending on the car. I do a similar calculation in airplanes, counting steps from the entrance to my seat. I also count headrests with my hand.
In a dark or smoke-filled airplane, you may lose track of steps because you’re taking longer strides or jumping over things, so the number of seats you can touch by extending your hand while running is a nice tactile backup. You can also make it a game during your morning commute to count how many stairs and steps from turnstile to platform edge. This will give you an idea of the average distance you’ll need to cover to reach the relative safety of outdoors.
Sit at the front of the compartment by the door between the cars. This door is easy to open (even when the train is moving), doesn’t require the train to be stopped, and doesn’t have to be pried open to escape the compartment. In a panic, most people will stampede and crowd the exit doors to the platform; not many will think of escaping through the door in between cars if the train is stopped.
If the train is moving, people will quickly realize your door is their only escape, so be prepared for the rush toward you and possibly getting crushed. Being between cars while the train is moving is dangerous, but when the train comes to a stop you can jump to the platform from there. If you can, continue into the next car and keep moving further and further away from the attack, putting more distance between you and ground zero.
Why the front end of the compartment as opposed to the rear? It increases your likelihood of being upstream from an incident if it occurs. If gas is escaping a stricken car and spreading to other compartments, in a moving train it’ll spread primarily backward, pushed by the wind currents, not forward and up wind in the direction of motion. You want to get upwind.
When it comes to communicating for help and alerting authorities, the NYC subway system offers Wi-Fi and cellular service in all its stations. In a simple gas attack without structural damage from an explosion or collapse, the system will likely still be functional. Texts require less bandwidth than cellular calls. Oftentimes, a signal too weak for a successful phone call will still be sufficient to bounce around and eventually complete a text or post to social media.
If signal isn’t good enough to call for help, you can alert authorities using these means. The NYPD and many large city law enforcement agencies have social media accounts such as Twitter and Facebook. The use of social media to alert and contact for help has been proven in disasters before. You should move toward the very front car of the train, placing the largest distance possible between you and the gas release and alerting the train operator to what is happening. They can radio the authorities.
If you’re stuck in a compartment that is gassed and can’t get out for whatever reason (doors jammed, crowd density, etc.), use your glass breaker on the windows and start ventilating to dilute the gas. This is where you’ll be thankful that you always put your EDC gear in the same place in your bag every time and have rehearsed grabbing each item without looking. You need to find that glass breaker in low visibility, heavy smoke, or through tearing eyes. Instruct other passengers in the car to “ventilate” the train too.
Keep in mind you don’t want to stick your body too far out of the broken window if the train is in motion, as you can get hit by a passing column. Stand on seats or climb up a pole if you can. The gas is heavier than air, so the higher you go, the less the concentration of the chemical agent.
This is the opposite of the crawl you’re taught to avoid smoke when escaping from a fire. The reality is that this principle works best when we’re dealing with greater heights, such as going up another floor or two, not so much the 2 feet you get by standing on a seat, but it may buy you a few seconds as you survey your escape route and break glass. If you were out of the train, getting to a higher level by stairs should definitely result in a noticeable change in concentration gradient of the gas.
Though getting away from the gas is the single most important key to survival, if stopped in a tunnel, leaving the train and heading out has its own hazards. There’s also the danger of being hit by another train or coming into contact with the electrical supply and being electrocuted. Also, the tracks are the lowest point in the station and that’s where the gas accumulates. Many of the tunnels are several blocks long. You’ll have to weigh these dangers and decide if it’s worth the risk.
Trains are frequent targets for terrorists. Escaping the epicenter of the attack to the outside is the key. Dilution is your friend — get to higher ground, as most chemical gases sink.
Terrorism does part of its job when people are harmed, but it also succeeds when people are afraid to go about their normal lives. Terror attacks instill people with fear, in addition to causing physical harm to people, systems, and places. This threat may cause some people to go about their business with a sense of unease. It may keep people from traveling to crowded places or visiting certain cities that may be considered a likely target. Or it may leave people paralyzed with paranoia.
So how do we find a balance between keeping ourselves and our families safe and walking boldly through life? Terrorists win when good people cower in fear, but this doesn’t mean we should be foolhardy in our defiance and willingly place ourselves in harm’s way to prove how brave we are. There’s always a middle road we can travel, avoiding the greatest risks while exercising reasonable caution. And the key to staying on this middle road is situational awareness. During your daily routine, pay attention to people, places, situations, and your instincts. Be vigilant as you go about your day. Transform from a nation of sheep into a nation of sheepdogs, ever watching for the wolves that would try to harm the helpless.
Tim MacWelch has been a survival instructor for more than 20 years, training people from all walks of life, including members from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, the State Department, DOD, and DOJ personnel. He’s a frequent public speaker for preparedness groups and events. He’s also the author of three New York Times-bestselling survival books, and the new Ultimate Bushcraft Survival Manual. When he’s not teaching survival or writing about it, MacWelch lives a self-reliant lifestyle with his family in Virginia. Check out his wide range of hands-on training courses that are open to the public at www.advancedsurvivaltraining.com.
Lorenzo Paladino MD is an emergency physician at a large trauma center and an EMS medical director. He’s an advanced trauma life support and a tactical combat casualty care (TCCC) instructor, frequently working with DOJ, DOD, Air Force Pararescue (PJs), Army Special Forces, and SWAT personnel. Dr. Paladino is a Team One Network instructor (teamonenetwork.com) and a medical director for ADS Medical Support Team International on overseas deployments. Expertise includes penetrating trauma, critical care, blast injuries, injury ballistics, chemical attacks, austere and hostile environments, K9 medicine, scuba rescue, and emergencies. He can be contacted at Lorenzo.Paladino@gmail.com.