Why no one died when a gunman opened fire on the subway
By Sarah Maslin Nir
Inside the roughly 750 square feet of a subway car on Tuesday morning, a gunman unleashed a hail of bullets, firing at rush-hour commuters at close range — captive victims.
While 33 bullets were sprayed from his Glock handgun, they wounded only 10 passengers. More than a dozen other people were injured, some of them choking on smoke from the two devices the police said Frank R. James detonated before he started shooting.
As the police announced the capture of Mr. James on Wednesday, the city steadied itself after an attack that has no equivalent in the subway’s history, and the release of more victims from hospitals underscored a remarkable truth:
Not one person died.
“I don’t understand the physics of it; he’s feet away from people with a firearm that is designed to kill people — and no one got killed,” said Paul M. Barrett, the author of “Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun.” “I think it is either tremendous luck — or a miracle.”
In some ways, the city has been spared. There will be no memorial wreaths or votive candles laid at the 36th Street subway stop in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where the attack occurred, and there will be no funerals to attend.
Whether it was the result of fate, fortune, a malfunctioning 9-millimeter handgun or poor marksmanship, what became clear as details emerged about Mr. James — a 62-year-old with addresses in Philadelphia and Wisconsin — is how much worse the attack could have been.
Mr. James has been charged with the federal crime of committing a terrorist act on a mass transit system.
At about 8:30 a.m., Mr. James, according to the police, pulled on a gas mask while riding an N train and dropped two devices that filled the car with smoke. He then began firing the first of three 30-round-capacity magazines into the car. Such extended-capacity magazines are illegal in New York State.
After firing off one entire magazine, Mr. James loaded a second into his handgun, according to a senior law enforcement official with knowledge of the case, and squeezed off three more rounds. At that point, based on the capacity of the three magazines — one discovered in the gun, another on the subway car’s floor and the third in a backpack — Mr. James had at least 57 more bullets at his disposal.
Then the gun jammed.
“If that gun didn’t jam, the probability of somebody dying is very high,” said Detective Paul DiGiacomo, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association. “God had to be watching out over that train, I’ve got to tell you that.”
The type of malfunction that occurred is known as a “double feed,” according to the senior law enforcement official, which occurs when the gun’s extractor fails to remove a spent casing. The next round is pulled from the magazine but cannot go forward because it is blocked by the casing, according to Lenny Magill, founder and chief executive of Glock Store, a Nashville-based company that sells and distributes Glock parts and accessories online.
Such malfunctions can happen when a gun’s internal mechanisms are clogged with dirt, or when a magazine is attached that is not compatible with the handgun, Mr. Magill said. (Mr. James’s high-capacity magazines were not made by Glock, according to the senior law enforcement official.)
The handgun was on its fourth owner, according to the law enforcement official. It was sold new in Texas in 2006 and resold in Georgia, then in Massachusetts, and then finally to Mr. James, who bought it legally in Columbus, Ohio, in 2011.
The way the gunman fired the Glock might also have spared lives. Several victims, like Hourari Benkada, 27, who said he was sitting next to the gunman on the N train at the time of the attack, were shot in their lower limbs. Mr. Benkada told CNN that a bullet had gone through the back of his knee.
Rudy Pérez, 20, a construction worker, was struck in his left leg. The location of the injuries, in the lower parts of victims’ bodies, could indicate that the man was shooting from his hip, keeping the gun low, Mr. Magill said, and thus throwing off his aim.
“Luckily he wasn’t a skilled person with a gun,” Mr. Magill added.
A number of victims were treated for smoke inhalation from the devices the gunman detonated. The devices filled the train car with vapor as passengers covered their faces and fought to breathe. That fog may have also saved lives, Detective DiGiacomo said, by preventing the attacker from seeing his own victims clearly.
“He ignited those canisters that made it difficult for even him to see,” he said.
That no one was killed may have come as a surprise to the man who the police say was behind the shooting. The day before the attack, Mr. James posted a video online in which he said he had often wanted to kill. He added that he wished he could “watch people die” right in front of him.
But even after the chaos and carnage of Tuesday morning, no one would die.