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Vigilant eyes have no match

RAY SANCHEZ September 11, 2005

As demons descended from the heavens, angels trudged the dark and smoky underground around the burning towers.

Kevin Moore, a transit supervisor at the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station, grabbed a flashlight and, on foot, guided a train and its human cargo through smoke-filled tunnels. Dennis Dillon, another train service supervisor, climbed behind the controls of a steel workhorse carrying one thousand souls on the Lexington line below lower Manhattan and maneuvered it to safety.

Noel Roman and Eugene Rogers, the operator and conductor on the last PATH train to leave the World Trade Center that September morning, made it safely across the Hudson River with five or six people - including a homeless man, a signal maintainer and a station cleaner - in the moments before the towers came down.

Motorman Hector Ramirez ignored orders to bypass Cortlandt Street and stopped his R train for terrified riders on the smoky platform. "I couldn't leave these people," he said. Four years after 9/11, their deeds are largely forgotten.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority moves ahead with plans to close station booths and remove conductors. The subway's so-called "eyes and ears" are quietly being replaced by electronic sensors and closed-circuit TV networks. "It is very hard to actually get a handle on terror and how to prevent it," said Harvey Molotch, professor of sociology and urban studies at New York University. "Everybody is moving, it seems to me, by the seat of their pants, with very uncertain knowledge and strategies."

Homeland security this, emergency management that. Consider the government response in New Orleans. When Molotch and PhD candidate Noah McClain shopped around a proposal to research how transit workers sense danger and what they do in response, there was little interest. Not sexy enough. Billions pour into research on high-tech biological and chemical sensors, ventilation systems and policing strategies.

In contemporary security terms, Molotch and McClain argue, subway workers are "first responders." They may represent the best hope for preventing trouble in the first place. Still, the researchers secured only a two-year, $50,000 grant from the Manhattan-based Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for the study.

They will conduct interviews with station and car cleaners, station agents, train operators, conductors and track workers. "They're in the zone of danger of things you could not imagine," Molotch said. "We want to find out what workers do not just in dramatic instances, but in the very mundane day-to-day moments of life," McClain said. "How do people who clean stations see people who mean harm to others? Or believe they're seeing that? What are the basic mechanics of their identification of problems? The mechanics of how they go about communicating with co-workers and police as a way of understanding how they can react to more dramatic, catastrophic incidents?" "These catastrophic events begin with small steps," Molotch said, speaking both of terrorist attacks and the immediate responses to them.

Small steps such as Ramirez's decision to stop at the smoky Cortlandt Street platform. "You always wish you could have done more," said Ramirez, a train operator for 17 years. "I think about my blessings. And I realize that thousands of people went to work that day and never returned home."

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

http://www.newsday.com/news/printedition/newyork/nyc-nysub114421438sep11,0,7213729.story?coll=nyc-nynews-print

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