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Riders stuck on snow-trapped train sue NY agency

NEW YORK - Subway riders stuck all night in a train trapped by snow after a blizzard sued a transportation agency on Tuesday, saying officials told them it was simply "an act of God."

In court papers describing last year's ordeal, they said they had no heat, food, water or bathroom facilities while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority kept promising help.

The city was all but paralyzed when the storm hit on Dec. 26, 2010, with 2 feet of snow piled around an A train on elevated tracks in Queens. Inside were about 500 passengers who spent eight hours there in freezing temperatures.

The conductor refused to allow passengers off the train, "resulting in a deplorable imprisonment," said 22 of them named in the suit, which was filed in Queens state Supreme Court.

They are seeking unspecified damages from the New York City Transit Authority, part of the MTA, which runs the nation's largest mass transit system. The subway alone has a daily ridership of more than 5 million.

Manhattan attorney Aymen Aboushi said the stranded passengers decided to sue after a year of meetings with transit officials convinced them that suing was the only way to get the MTA to pay attention. He said he's handling the case pro bono in hopes of forcing changes in the emergency response system to avert a similar nightmare.

The MTA issued a statement Tuesday saying it already has implemented changes to improve performance in future storms. The changes include "protocols to suspend service in harsh conditions" and assigning a rider advocate "to ensure the safety and comfort of our customers."

The blizzard, just after Christmas last year, was part of a mammoth nor'easter that stretched from Florida to Maine.

More than 2 feet of snow fell on some parts of New York City, combined with strong winds that led to a massive transportation gridlock. Hundreds of buses were stuck on streets, commuter trains were frozen onto tracks and major airports closed.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration was criticized for its slow response to the foul weather and its aftermath. Streets went unplowed for days, and cars, buses and other vehicles were stranded. Bloomberg acknowledged the response wasn't good enough.

A year later, more than $1.8 million has been paid out in claims, with more pending from people who said they were injured on snowy and icy roads and walkways or whose cars and other property were damaged from snow removal efforts, according to the city comptroller's office.

Passengers on the stranded A train say their frantic cellphone calls to 911 and the MTA did not result in any action — or even helpful information.

"It's pretty clear that the MTA dropped the ball," Aboushi said.

With frost developing on the subway windows inside, passengers spent the night huddled together in one of the five cars to create some body heat, they said.

One woman resorted to a makeshift toilet — outside between subway cars. Others urinated or defecated in the car filled with riders, some standing for hours because there wasn't enough room, according to the complaint.

Several others had to be hospitalized after finally being rescued from the Manhattan-bound train, which was stuck on the tracks between the Aqueduct and Rockaway Boulevard stations. One rider developed bronchitis, another pneumonia.

"When the train was finally moved, the passengers were off-loaded at the next stop, in the freezing cold, with about three feet of snow on the ground," the plaintiffs said in their lawsuit.

As for any changes being implemented, Aboushi said: "There really hasn't been any meaningful policy change."

The passengers named in the suit met with MTA officials repeatedly in the past year to voice their complaints, but transit officials insisted they "did nothing wrong and that the passengers being trapped was an act of God outside the defendant's control," according to the suit.

Aboushi said transit officials should introduce "an effective communication policy with passengers" that would make it possible to provide accurate information to anyone stuck during an emergency. In addition, he said, there should be a way to get basic resources such as food and water to passengers in need.

"We're not asking them to provide three-course dinners," he said. "But there were grandfathers on that train."

At a City Council hearing earlier this month, NYC Transit President Thomas Prendergast acknowledged that transit officials had lost track of the stranded train.

"We forgot about it," he said, adding, "It's inexcusable."