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Posted: 9/27/2004 5:24:46 PM EDT

September 27, 2004
Penn Station Fire Disrupts Commute for Tens of Thousands

Tens of thousands of commuters were scrambling to find a way home from New York City tonight after Pennsylvania Station was shut down and briefly evacuated just before the evening rush because of fires in a transformer beneath the East River and on the tracks near a terminal entrance, the authorities said.

"Certainly people are annoyed," said Brian P. Dolan, a spokesman for the Long Island Railroad, which was trying to reroute about 120,000 commuters this afternoon who normally take a train into or out of Penn Station. "We'll do our best to get them home safely, but we need their patience."

He said that service was expected to be curtailed throughout the evening commute, and that he could not say when it would be fully restored.

By early this evening, firefighters reported the blazes mostly under control, but the ripple effect from early cancelations was wreaking havoc with scheduled departures and arrivals. In addition, the transformer fire affected electrical power for rail service from Queens.

As a result, the station's passenger levels became crowded and chaotic, as commuters pushed and shoved to reach the few trains that were announced to be departing.

The two fires were mostly disrupting Manhattan service to and from Long Island and New Jersey, and from some destinations served by Amtrak.

Some New Jersey Transit trains were canceled or delayed, but commuters were left to figure out which ones. The railroad said it could not get access to its trains in the Sunnyside Yards in Queens, where many of their trains are parked between rush hours.

While subway service was not disrupted, commuters could expect delays because many people who usually take the L.I.R.R. were being rerouted to the subway, said Charles Seaton, a spokesman for New York City Transit, which operates the subway system.

"We're seeing higher than normal levels of loading," he said.

The city Fire Department said it responded to the transformer fire on tracks used by Amtrak in an East River tunnel at around 1 p.m., The Associated Press reported. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

Firefighters were also fighting a rubbish fire on train tracks near a Penn Station entrance at 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue, and five civilians were taken to a hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation from that blaze, The A.P. said.

At 5:45 p.m., the Long Island Rail Road's Web site, mta.nyc.ny.us/lirr/, suggested alternate routes for its commuters:

"There is no L.I.R.R. train service between Jamaica and Penn Station. Port Washington branch service is suspended between Penn Station and Woodside.

L.I.R.R. Port Washington customers seeking service should take the No. 7 train to Woodside - 61st [where they can connect to an L.I.R.R. train for eastbound service.

"L.I.R.R. customers seeking other L.I.R.R. service can take the No. 2, 3, 4 or 5 NYC Transit [subway] train to Atlantic Avenue for L.I.R.R. service from our Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn terminal. Customers can also take the E or J or Z NYC Transit train to Sutphin Boulevard/Archer Avenue for connections at the L.I.R.R. Jamaica Station."

At the Jamaica train station, police officers were shouting announcements and instructions through bull horns, and they appeared to have closed part of the road beneath the tracks because of the milling crowds.

At 6:45 p.m., the New Jersey Transit Web site, njtransit.com/, said that there were still "significant delays." Earlier, it said:

"Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast Line and Midtown Direct trains are operating into New York on a limited schedule. Outbound service is also limited and is subject to delays and cancellations." The Web site said customers could use their NJ Transit tickets on PATH trains from the 33rd Street Station at Avenue of the Americas. The tickets were also being honored by New York Waterway ferries, Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and commuter buses of the NJ Transit, DeCamp and Lakeland lines.

At Penn Station, some New Jersey Transit trains were still making their scheduled departures and arrivals, but confusion reigned as commuters tried to figure out which ones.

Lenzel Davis, who lives in Edison, N.J., managed to make his way onto a New Jersey Trenton train to head home, but then the train did not move.

"I still have patience for the moment,' he said, as he waited. "Right now we're just sitting here and waiting and have no idea what's going to happen."

Penn Station was packed with people shoulder to shoulder who kept looking up at giant screens that normally announce arrivals and departures. Every 10 to 15 minutes an announcement was made over the public address system that a train was going to board, and a mass of people would push and jostle each other to get down the stairs first.

The station was closed down entirely and evacuated for about an hour this afternoon, and then people were let in about 4 p.m.. By 6 p.m. most Amtrak trains still had not left the station. One high-speed Acela to Washington departed at around 5 p.m.

Across the Hudson River, at Newark Penn Station, the destination of many NJ Transit trains and the transition point for PATH trains going into and out of Manhattan, it was also bedlam, with thousands of people crowding the station, some of them screaming at officials who were trying to answer questions about trains that would not arrive.

Dave Erskine, who lives in Edison, works at Exchange Place in Jersey City. He normally takes a 15-minute trip on the PATH train to Newark, and then transfers to an NJ Transit train to Edison, which takes about 50 minutes. Tonight he had been waiting at Penn Station for over an hour for the NJ Transit train that still hadn't arrived.

"I usually go to the gym, but I guess I'm not going tonight," he said.

Some commuters heading to Long Island took the E train to the Jamaica L.I.R.R. railroad station, and most were handling the unexpected change in routine fairly well.

MaryAnn Comuniello, 44, a production accountant, called the disruption "just a little bump in the road."

"I think once we knew that it was nothing where anybody was in danger, everything was O.K.," she said. "New Yorkers are resilient. They go with the flow." She said she found out about the situation at 2:30 p.m., and that the flow of information had been good. Ken Ellis, 52, an education consultant, was headed to Great Neck. "I'm amazed that so many people are getting through so well," he said. "It's sort of like going to Yankee stadium. It's good practice. It's a good drill; a fire drill without the danger. People's patience is really amazing."

Jennifer Medina, Jason George, Colin Moynihan and Janon Fisher contributed reporting for this article.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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