NEW YORK — A subway operator was charged with five counts of manslaughter after his train derailed early Wednesday, killing five and causing more than 175 injuries.
In addition, motorman Robert Ray, 39, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.21% when he was tested 13 hours after the wreck, Police Commissioner Lee Brown said at a news conference.
Brown said Ray told police he drank three beers after the accident. Brown said that would not be enough by itself to reach the 0.21% alcohol level. The New York state standard for vehicular drunken driving is 0.10%.
Brown earlier said that an empty crack vial found in the motorman's cab had tested positive for cocaine. Ray was tested for drug use, but results were not immediately available.
The accident, one of the worst in the history of New York's subways, was described by a police officer involved in rescue efforts as "like a plane crash underground . . . just twisted, mangled steel and pillars all over the place."
The 10-car train, a southbound express carrying 500 passengers, jumped the tracks at about 12:15 a.m. Wednesday as it was approaching the 14th Street-Union Square station in Lower Manhattan.
At a briefing for reporters late Wednesday afternoon, John Lauber of the National Transportation Safety Board said that preliminary investigations revealed three emergency brake trip arms were extended, but "we don't know at this point what the significance of all that is." Transit Authority Vice President Thomas Prendergast also said the possibility of excessive speed was not being ruled out as a factor in the crash.
Several survivors claimed that the train was being driven erratically in the minutes leading up to the derailment. There was also a report that the train had overshot a station before the accident, leaving just three of the cars open to board passengers.
Ray, who apparently fled from the accident scene, was picked up about six hours later by police near his home in the Bronx.
Newsday, a New York newspaper, reported that anonymous police sources quoted Ray as saying "I've been drinking all day and fell asleep at the wheel."
Edward Teideman, a passenger on the train, said in a televised interview that Ray emerged from the motorman's compartment immediately after the crash "staggering a little bit. He walked to the middle of the car. After that, I didn't see him no more."
Police said that Ray, an eight-year veteran of the city Transit Authority, had been tested for drugs twice before--once when he was promoted to motorman and again just last January after running a signal--but that both tests were negative.
An official of the transit workers' union decribed Ray as a "good worker, a steady worker."
According to transit officials, the train jumped the rails as it was switching from the express track to the local track about 50 to 100 yards north of the 14th Street-Union Square station. The lead car slammed into a support pillar and was ripped in half. The coach was splattered with blood and littered with debris.
"The train just rose off the tracks into the wall," said one survivor as she was helped to safety along the station platform. "The front of the train got twisted up into the ceiling. I don't know what else happened." Another passenger said: "It was just like you open a tuna can."
The first five cars of the Brooklyn-bound train were derailed, with the third car also being sliced in half by a support column. Robert Pressler of Engine Co. 3 said that one victim was pinned in the wreckage with both of his legs broken and a piece of metal projecting from his midsection.
Rescue efforts by firefighters and police emergency rescue crews got under way almost immediately after the crash. The teams inched their way up the subway tunnel, fighting noxious fumes and 100-degree temperatures and worrying about the subway's weakened support structure.
"There's always the danger of something collapsing on you," one rescue officer said. "Everything had to be shored up and stabilized prior to anybody entering or operating."
Specially trained dogs were used to sniff out trapped passengers who might otherwise have escaped attention.
Emergency Medical Services spokesmen said that 177 persons were treated at nearby Manhattan and Brooklyn hospitals for injuries, including 44 rescue workers, many of whom suffered from smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion.
Many passengers suffered dislocated shoulders or broken bones. Twelve of the injured passengers were described as being in critical condition.
Medical teams turned the station platform into a treatment and triage area. "The train just started going crazy, people started crying," said one woman who rested against a pillar on the platform with her young children. "I just thank God me and my children are alive."
Mayor David N. Dinkins, wearing a blue baseball cap and jacket, was among the earliest officials to arrive at the scene and offer comfort and support to the survivors.
"It's a twisted mess," he later told reporters, describing the crash scene. "I've never witnessed anything like this, and others of far more experience than I have suggested they've not seen quite this destruction."
The accident threw commuters and automobile traffic into chaos as service was suspended on the Lexington Avenue line between 86th Street on the Upper East Side and Borough Hall in Lower Manhattan. The line ordinarily carries 425,000 passengers daily during rush hour.
A gridlock alert was issued for surface traffic in the area of the accident.
"Every day is something new," said veteran cabdriver Goris German philosophically. "Today you have a big one. Tomorrow you'll have a bigger one."
In December, a tunnel fire between Manhattan and Brooklyn spread smoke through a crowded car, killing two and injuring about 150 others. A subway crash in Brooklyn in 1918 killed 97 people. In 1928, a Manhattan crash killed 16.