Hell on Wheels

updated 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Almost from the time the downtown No. 4 subway train began its 21-mile run below New York City at 11:38 P.M. on the night of Tuesday, Aug. 27, something seemed amiss. Heading from the Bronx to Manhattan, the train overshot the platform at a couple of stations. At times it slowed to a crawl and then accelerated to breakneck speeds. The conductor contacted the motorman, Robert Ray, 38, several times on the intercom to find out if everything was all right. Ray replied that he was fine.

But that was clearly not the case. Hurtling south from Grand Central to the Union Square station at 14th Street, Ray approached one track switching point at an estimated 50 mph, five times faster than he should have. In a screech of tearing metal, the train jumped the tracks, bounced off a wall, then slashed through a dozen steel tunnel supports, shearing the first car in half. Most of the 500 or so passengers on the train, many of them going to or from late-night jobs, went flying like tenpins. All told, five people died, and 172 were injured. Ray, who left the scene of the accident, now faces second-degree murder charges. He told police he was asleep at the controls when the train crashed. Tests 13 hours later showed that his blood contained twice the legal limit of alcohol. (Ray's lawyer contends the test reflects only the fact that his client drank after the accident.) PEOPLE reporters Gavin Moses and Samuel Mead and correspondent Victoria Balfour spoke to survivors of New York City's worst subway disaster in 63 years.

Clarence Thomas, 57, who works as a newspaper deliveryman in Manhattan, was riding in the first car, right near motorman Ray: The ride from Grand Central to 14th Street was like the roller coaster at Coney Island. All of a sudden I heard a bang like an artillery shell going off. The lights in the car go out, and then the horror started. Everything began to fall apart. There was nothing to hold on to, because the metal poles posted in the center of the car were falling like straws. There was a lot of smoke and a lot of blue flames.

Merrick Brodsky, 41, an attorney who was moonlighting as a movie projectionist on the Upper East Side, was on his way home to his wife and 4-year-old son in Brooklyn: I was in the fourth car. I was thrown to the floor and hit the side of my head. A bicycle landed on me, and two bodies flew past. There was the sound of the vertical beams being twisted and mangled by the car. Then we came to sort of an eerie silence. People began to scream, "Oh, Jesus!"

Thomas: Suddenly the motorman opened his door. I looked at him and I say, "Why is this happening to us?" He just stared at me. I said, "What's wrong, you can't talk? Why did you do this to us?' He didn't look hurt, he just walked out. He walked over some of the people lying on the floor. He didn't walk on them, but he stepped over.

Steve Vail, 29, a computer programmer for a brokerage firm who had been working that night as a hot-dog vendor at Yankee Stadium, was on his way to his mother's apartment downtown: The lights were out, and the car was starting to fill up very fast with smoke. There had been two transit cops riding in the car. We were looking for someone to be in charge. I said to one of them, "What are we going to do? When are we leaving?" He got snippy and said, "What are you looking at me for? I'm just here too. I don't know anything." I guess we were all just scared.

Thomas: I was carried out on a stretcher, because my whole left side and lower back were numb. At St. Vincent's Hospital I was told I had no broken bones, just injuries to soft tissue. I ended up taking the subway at 6:30 A.M. I was a little apprehensive, but I knew that because one man made a mistake, they weren't all like that.

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