What survivors of a train shooting 30 years ago can — and can’t — teach the people of Sunset Park
Terry Sullivan remembers how hard it was to get back on the Long Island Rail Road after a gunman opened fire on his train in 1993.
“The toughest part was feeling the train slow down because that was the exact time that the gunman had started shooting,” Sullivan said.
Six people were killed and 19 others injured in the shooting that Sullivan witnessed. It was the last mass shooting on a train in New York until last month, when a gunman opened fire on an N train in Sunset Park. Ten people were shot; no one was killed. Now, as the Sunset Park survivors begin the long road toward feeling safe again, the LIRR survivors have a unique perspective on what may lay ahead.
Kevin Zaleskie had been sitting several rows in front of Sullivan on the LIRR when the shooting happened. For months afterward, he was haunted by one thought: what if he’d been killed?
“For a while, I felt like I was a ghost in my own house,” he said. “I would be out on the deck, grilling. I can look into these doors and see my family and say what would it be like if I wasn't here at all?”
In Sunset Park, people have been experiencing the same fear and stress.
“Usually in the mornings when I take the train, I usually take a nap. And now it's like you can't take a nap on the train no more. Now you gotta keep your eyes open, you gotta be in survival mode,” Evelyn Bermejo told Gothamist the day after the shooting.
“Everybody's nervous right now,” another resident, Evelyn Torres, agreed. “You don't know what happened, you go out of your house but you don't know if you come back to your house.”
That dread is something Julia Jean-Francois has heard a lot. She is overseeing counseling for a number of the Brooklyn victims at the Center for Family Life In Sunset Park. She said people in Sunset Park, many of whom are immigrants, were living with some fear even before the shooting.
“I think the tragedy here was there was a person who was very disturbed … who expressed that disorganization and rage and violence in a way that affected a lot of vulnerable people who already were afraid of Asian based hate crimes, or immigrant based hate crimes, being deported.”
The Long Island Rail Road survivors were mostly white and middle class, and had more support after the tragedy they lived through. Survivor Jane Nhaisi said her boss at a New York investment bank gave her lots of space to recover.
“He said, 'stay home as long as you want.' He said, 'When you're ready to come back, we'll send a car for you as long as you want.' And I stayed home for a couple days. I used a car for a couple days, maybe a week," Nhaisi said. "And then I got back on the train. It wasn't comfortable. But I did it.”
Likewise, Sullivan was already seeing a therapist when the Long Island Rail Road shooting happened. “And that was helpful because … You can process what you’re thinking and feeling about it,” he said.
Jean-Francois said for many Sunset Park survivors, stopping to process their feelings is out of the question.
“If you are working as a domestic worker and you're caring for an elderly person or you're cleaning houses, you can't afford to lose a day's pay,” she said. “That's how you're going to feed yourself and your children, that's how you're going to pay for your rent. So the relationship to fear is a different one.”
She said her office has received grants to pay people’s lost wages, provide some ride shares and trauma counseling. But for many people, healing will mostly be about reconnecting with friends, church groups and community organizations.
Walking this week in Sunset Park itself, the large grassy knoll that the neighborhood is named for, Allejandra Gomez agreed.
In the days after the shooting, she didn’t feel safe in her neighborhood. But seeing the streets full of people she knows, and feeling the spring air, and walking with her boyfriend, she said she feels better.