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A quiet morning commute on a Brooklyn subway quickly became a ‘war zone’ leaving more than 20 people injured, NYC mayor says

By Brynn Gingras, Pervaiz Shallwani, Mark Morales, Kristina Sgueglia, Eric Levenson, Amir Vera and Shimon Prokupecz, CNN

Passengers on a Manhattan-bound train had to dodge bullets while being blinded by smoke during the Tuesday morning commute, setting off a manhunt for a gunman whose motives are still unknown.

Commuters were riding the subway as it neared the 36th Street subway station in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park just before 8:30 a.m. when the gunman opened two smoke grenades, brandished a 9 mm handgun and fired at least 33 times striking 10 people — seven men and three women — according to NYPD Chief of Detectives James W. Essig.

Live updates: Multiple people shot in Brooklyn

Those 10 people were moved to area hospitals. An additional 13 people were injured via smoke inhalation, falling down or panic attacks, Essig said. Hospital representatives told CNN Tuesday’s shooting left at least 29 people injured, who were treated at three nearby hospitals for injuries, none of which are life-threatening.

“We saw a quiet Tuesday morning turn an N train into a war zone as a smoke bomb was detonated, and multiple shots rang out,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said, adding the quick response from MTA, passengers and first responders saved lives.

Five of the victims injured were students commuting to school, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul told reporters outside Maimonides Medical Center. She said she met with a 12-year-old, a 13-year-old, a 16-year-old and two 18-year-olds at the hospital, which is the only pediatric trauma hospital in the area.

A credit card and keys to a U-Haul van that had been rented in Philadelphia were found at the scene, police said. Both items helped investigators find a U-Haul van in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn Tuesday afternoon.

The bomb squad cleared the van and then it will be transported to a forensic location where the FBI NYPD and others can go through the vehicle in a controlled indoor environment.

The NYPD identified a man named Frank James, 62, as a “person of interest” in the shooting. James is believed to be the renter of the U-Haul vehicle found in Brooklyn and has addresses in both Wisconsin and Philadelphia, NYPD Chief of Detectives James Essig said Tuesday.

“Mr. James is just a person of interest we know right now who rented that U-Haul van in Philadelphia,” Essig said. “The key to that U-Haul van was found in the subway in our shooter’s possessions. We don’t know right now if Mr. James has any connection to the subway. That’s still under investigation.”

The van was rented on Monday from a U-Haul store in Philadelphia, according to company records obtained by CNN. The rental agreement obtained by CNN shows the U-Haul reservation was made Wednesday, and was scheduled to be picked up Monday at 2:01 p.m. The van was supposed to be rented for two days, according to the reservation.

The records show James rented the van using a Wisconsin license with a Milwaukee address.

NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell said there are possibly some social media postings connected to James in which he mentions homelessness, New York and Mayor Eric Adams. The mayor’s security detail was heightened out of an abundance of caution, Sewell said.

New York City agencies are offering a joint $50,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the suspect involved in Tuesday’s shooting, according to a statement from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

Later at the scene, investigators found a Glock 9 mm handgun, three extended magazines, two detonated smoke grenades, two non-detonated smoke grenades, a hatchet and a U-Haul key, Essig said. The key led to authorities finding the van in Brooklyn.

Two officials said they believe the gun jammed during the shooting. Sewell said there were no known active explosive devices on the train. The attack is not being investigated as an act of terrorism, but authorities have not ruled anything out, she said.

The photo gallery below contains graphic images. Viewer discretion is advised.

Anthony Valentino, who lives a block from the subway station, said he saw emergency responders outside his home and so went out to find people bloodied and in shock.

“I saw two people holding up a man who was all bloodied, blood all over his hands, and he was in shock, walking like a zombie before sitting to the floor,” Valentino said. “I felt horrible for him.”

The incident comes amid a rise in shootings in New York over the past two years and a particular rise in violence on the subway that has become a focus of Mayor Eric Adams’ administration. Transit crime, broadly, is up 68% compared to last year, numbers closer to where they were at pre-pandemic levels, according to an NYPD summary of statistics current through Sunday.

The city tweeted later Tuesday because of the MTA disruptions, the NYC Ferry is waiving fares on the South Brooklyn route for the rest of the day and will “provide additional service during the evening commute.”

Witness says he sat next to shooting suspect

Hourari Benkada, 27, told CNN he was sitting next to the subway shooting suspect on the “N” train Tuesday morning and was shot in the back of his knee while trying to flee.

“I feel shocked, I feel shaky, I don’t know if I can ever ride a train,” Benkada, a lifelong New Yorker, told CNN after coming out of surgery.

Benkada, a Housekeeping Manager at the New Yorker Hotel, said he got on the last car of the N train and sat next to a man with a duffel bag who was wearing an MTA vest. The man then let off a “smoke bomb” and started shooting about 20 seconds after the train took off, Benkada said.

Benkada said he was focused on helping a pregnant woman, who he feared would get hurt as people rushed to the front of the car to avoid the shooter, when he got shot, describing it as “the worst pain of my entire life.”

He explained the bullet hit him in the back of his knee and came out the other side. Doctors told him the bullet grazed his kneecap. He is expected to walk on his own after several weeks on crutches.

Benkada said he heard other people in pain but was unable to see them or the suspect because of the smoke.

Claire Tunkel, 46, told CNN she took off her jacket and tied it around the leg of a man who suffered a gunshot wound from Tuesday’s subway shooting in Brooklyn. Tunkel, who went to the hospital for smoke inhalation, said several gunshot victims were laying on the floor of the subway platform after the train arrived at the station.

“One of the guys who was shot, his leg was bleeding pretty bad, so I took off my jacket and tied it around his leg,” she said.

Tunkel was in the subway car where the shooting took place and described the scene as chaotic. While she couldn’t see anything because of the smoke, she said she heard people crying out for help and others who said they were bleeding.

“You couldn’t see anything, but you could feel it,” she said. People were rushing to the front of the car, and some fell to the ground, she noted. “You could feel the bodies.”

Yav Montano told CNN he was on the express train heading to work when smoke filled the subway car and he heard what sounded like fireworks. The train was between stations at the time, so panicked passengers tried to move to another train car to get further away from the smoke, he said.

“The whole car was engulfed in smoke,” he said. “I couldn’t even use my mask anymore because it was black with smoke. It was ridiculous.”

About 40 to 50 people were on the train at the time, he said. He was not sure how many were injured but said he saw a lot of blood on the floor of the train. When the train arrived at the 36th Street station, the passengers fled off the train onto the platform in a rush.

Photojournalist Derek French told CNN Tuesday he leveraged his Red Cross first aid training to help victims.

“Nobody was expecting it,” he said, explaining he had just stepped off the express N train after conductors said it was out of service.

As French moved toward the front of the train, he noticed the platform getting significantly less crowded, but significantly more smoky. Then, he saw a pool of blood, and victims nearby. At first, French said he thought they had been stabbed, but soon realized they’d been shot.

After snapping a few photos, French said he put his camera bag down and went to help the four victims he remembered were laying on the ground. While helping them, French discovered the victim had been shot in the ankle and was bleeding.

“I used my windbreaker to make an additional tourniquet as far up the limb as possible to slow it or ensure that another gunshot that I don’t see is restricted from blood flood,” he said.

A video taken by a subway rider shows people rushing off the train after it pulls into the station. Smoke pours from the car where the shooting took place, and people are heard screaming, the video shows. An individual is seen helping an injured and bleeding person dressed in a blue hoodie off the train. Another man hobbles off the train shortly after, the video shows.

Surveillance video from within the station may not be available. A preliminary review indicates there was some sort of malfunction with the camera system at the station, Adams told WCBS Radio 880 AM. There are almost 10,000 cameras in the MTA system including almost 600 cameras on the Brooklyn section of where the attack took place, MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

“We’re going to work with the NYPD to capture all that video to find out where this criminal may have come in or out of the system,” Lieber said. “And we’re also just reviewing with everybody who is involved, all of the information.”

The NYPD activated the city’s “Unified Victim Identification System” (UVIS) Tuesday in response to the subway shooting, the department tweeted. The UVIS is a “disaster management system that manages and coordinates all of the activities related to missing persons reporting and victim identification” and enables “centralized communications and data collection processes,” according to an official city guide on the system.

The system was previously used in response to various emergencies in New York City, including the East Harlem building explosion and Hurricane Sandy. It was also activated in April 2020, so New Yorkers could file a report about a friend or loved one who may have gone missing due to Covid-19.

Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood is located in the southwest part of the borough and has a significant number of residents who are Asian and Hispanic. Each group makes about a third of its more than 135,000 residents, according to US Census data. The southern part of the neighborhood has emerged as Brooklyn’s Chinatown due to its growing population of immigrants from the Fujian province in China.

Shootings on the rise in New York

The shooting comes as violence in New York City and across the US has increased since the Covid-19 pandemic, reversing a decades long decline.

In New York, more than 360 people have been shot this year in 322 shooting incidents, increases of about 8% and 9% from last year, respectively, according to data reported by NYPD through Sunday. Over the last two years, shootings in New York are up 72.2 percent, and shooting victims up 70.4 percent.

Tuesday’s subway attack is the second mass shooting, defined as at least four people shot, in Brooklyn this year and the fourth in New York State, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The first Brooklyn mass shooting of the year was on January 13 at a Brooklyn event hall. There have been more than 100 mass shootings in the US so far this year.

Lieber, the MTA chair and CEO, said New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Adams made commitments very early on in the new year to keeping the city’s subway system safe.

“They have put more officers both on the platforms and on the train where people feel vulnerable,” Lieber explained, “And there are, you know, there’s an enormous effort to reach out to some of the people who for whatever reason have been sheltering in the subway system.”

In February New York City unveiled a comprehensive plan, dubbed The Subway Safety Plan, aimed at combating crime and addressing homelessness in the subway system to expand response teams of health, police and community officials across the city.

Mayor Adams emphasized the entire nation is witnessing a high level of violence, not only New York City.

“We’re facing is a problem that is hitting our entire nation right now and that is why this is a national response,” Adams told CNN’s Dana Bash. “We need a national response to this issue.”

Including Tuesday’s shooting, there have been 131 mass shootings in America this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit tracking gun death and injury. Those shootings left 141 people dead and 547 people wounded.

As a result of the attack, the Brooklyn Nets told fans to expect an “increased security presence” at Tuesday night’s postseason play-in tournament game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Barclays Center, the team tweeted Tuesday.

“Your safety and security is our top priority, and we are working closely with our law enforcement partners,” the tweet read. “Fans should plan to arrive early and expect an increased security presence at Barclays Center.”

Mass transit systems in the US increased patrols and asked the public to report anything unusual in the wake of the attack. In California, both the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) have either increased police presence at stations or are on “heightened alert” as a result of the incident in New York.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled FDNY First Deputy Commissioner Laura Kavanagh’s last name.

™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Rob Frehse, Sharif Paget, Artemis Moshtaghian, Caroll Alvarado, Nicole Chavez, Alaa Elassar, Jason Hanna, Laura Ly, Paul P. Murphy, Peter Nickeas, Yon Pomrenze, Shimon Prokupecz and Elizabeth Wolfe contributed to this report.

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