A 12 months of Ache: Victims Wrestle After Brooklyn Subway Capturing
More than a year ago, a mass shooting on the subway in Brooklyn miraculously killed no one. But as the victims live on, so do their physical and psychological wounds.
No one died when 10 people were shot in the random attack during the morning rush hour, as the train snaked through Sunset Park: A passenger who had been sitting quietly suddenly hurled smoke grenades and brandished a weapon, firing 33 shots.
The violence was just one of 648 mass shootings across the United States in 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group. This year has continued on that same dark trajectory: As of Friday, the group had counted at least 172 mass shootings, which it defines as one in which at least four people are killed or injured. There were seven mass shootings on April 15 alone, the highest of any day so far this year. The largest was at a teenager’s birthday party in Alabama, where four were killed and 28 others shot.
The resolution of the Brooklyn case was swift: The 63-year-old assailant, who had a made a series of rambling videos before the attack, in January pleaded guilty to a firearms offense and 10 counts of terrorist attack in federal court and faces a possible life sentence.
But the impact of mass shootings is felt long after they fade from the headlines and is borne by an alarming number of Americans. A recent poll by KFF, a public-health research group, found that more than half of adults said they or a relative had been affected by a gun-related incident, including being threatened or witnessing a shooting.
The experiences of victims in the Brooklyn attack illustrate the long-term consequences: the damage not just to bodies, but also to a sense of safety and the ability to earn a living.
‘I have the sound in my mind’
Rudy Perez, 21, had arrived from Guatemala only about nine months before the attack. He had once hoped to go to college, but going abroad held more economic promise. His family paid about $17,000 to a smuggler who helped him cross the Texas border.
He arrived on a Thursday and started working that Monday, at first laying tiles and then assisting an electrician. The morning of the attack, he was headed to a renovation job near Columbus Circle, where he would make about $140 for the day. But his ability to support himself and his family, and to repay that debt, would be severely compromised that morning.
At the New Utrecht stop, he immediately noticed the attacker, Frank James, who appeared to have luggage with him, but he didn’t think anything was amiss. Three stops later, the train had filled with riders. Smoke came from under a seat, everything turned gray and the shooting began.
“I started to panic,” he said. “I have the sound in my mind.”
The train paused before it pulled into 36th Street. Only then did Mr. Perez realize he was bleeding from his skinny calf. A bullet had hit the muscle, missing the bone. He was taken to N.Y.U. Langone Hospital in Brooklyn, where doctors extracted the bullet. Dr. Jonathan Cardwell, who treated him, recalled that he was pale and quiet, in a state of shock.
In the months after, he languished. He couldn’t walk and was left with no income. He called offices and lawyers in vain, often unable to communicate. He said that the state Office of Victim Services asked for a Social Security number, which he did not have, and he never received any compensation.
He survived on rice, cereal and other basics delivered by a nonprofit, the Center for Family Life. A younger stepsister, who arrived after him and was working as a live-in maid, gave him money for rent.
By the summer, he had started working here and there — and venturing out, trying the roller coasters in Coney Island with friends and even the Sunset Park public pool, though he was hesitant to put his leg in.
N.Y.U. Langone and the center helped set up therapy sessions where he learned breathing exercises to control anxiety. He did sessions during his lunch breaks.
The bullet had missed the bone, and he expects to make a full recovery. A lawyer is helping him file for a special visa for crime victims. He is now working whenever a job is available and thinks he’ll be able to pay off his smuggling debt soon.
One simple thing worried him: running. But he was late for his train on a recent morning and found himself sprinting.
“From there, I felt I could, and I was happy,” he said.
‘I kind of still feel like a burden’
Aroldo Gonzalez’s recovery has been rougher. The 19-year-old American-born son of Guatemalan immigrants was headed to Borough of Manhattan Community College, where he was working toward becoming a police officer.
During the attack, a bullet had entered his calf and lodged under his knee. He thinks his favorite footwear, Doc Martens platform boots that make him an inch or so taller, saved his joint. He also had a surface wound on his torso.
Doctors at Maimonides Medical Center left the bullet in his leg. But shortly after he returned home, the wound opened again and started gushing blood. He blacked out and received three transfusions at N.Y.U. Langone before surgery to extract the slug. The torso wound became infected and had to be operated on.
Doctors said a full recovery would take three years.
“I hated the feeling of not being able to walk and having everyone do everything for me,” he said. “Prior to that, I didn’t like asking for help. Now I was forced into taking it.”
His injuries impede his progress. He stayed in school, completing his work remotely, but with a reduced course load that delayed his graduation by a semester.
He was frustrated that he couldn’t help more over the Easter weekend as he, his mother, Olga Guinea, and his siblings moved into a new apartment. They had spent months searching for a place because he couldn’t make it up and down the stairs in their previous walk-up. He still cannot walk too far and struggles with taking the train.
The first time he did so, with his girlfriend, he panicked. They tried to walk the rest of the way, but ended up calling an Uber to go just a few blocks.
“I kind of still feel like a burden,” he said.
A push for accountability
Mass shootings play out for years not just in personal lives of victims, but in the courts. Two lawsuits related to the Sunset Park shooting seek not only to compensate victims but to push for accountability for weapons manufacturers and for increased safety in the subways.
Ilene Steur sued Glock, the manufacturer of the gun that Mr. James used, using a new state law allowing such cases. At the moment, the case is on hold as an appeals court weighs the law, which the gun industry argues is unconstitutional.
Her lawyers detailed her injuries in June. The bullet entered her backside and went through her abdomen, fracturing her sacrum, said her lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein. She had gone through surgery, needed another operation and had to use a colostomy bag, he said.
“Her life will never be the same,” Mr. Rubenstein said.
The suit accuses Glock, one of the nation’s largest gunmakers, of marketing its weapons to criminals and failing to stop its products from falling into their hands.
It’s the same strategy that lawyers for relatives of Sandy Hook shooting victims used against Remington nearly a decade ago in an attempt to hold the gun industry accountable. Legal experts at first said they had little chance of succeeding, but the case was settled last year for $73 million, in what is believed to be the largest payout by a gun manufacturer in a mass shooting.
A suit filed in December against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the city by three people who were shot in the Brooklyn attack faults the agencies for failing to ensure safe conditions in the subways. Surveillance cameras at 36th Street and 25th Street were not working at the time of the attack, which complicated the ensuing manhunt. Gov. Kathy Hochul has since vowed to install cameras on every car by 2025.
One of the plaintiffs, Houari Benkada, 28, of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, suffered a fractured leg and gunshot wound. He’s back to work now as a housekeeping manager at a hotel but continues to grapple with pain and anxiety.
“Flashbacks of those events persist,” he said in a statement. “I am still working on trying to get to a better place, like how I was before this happened.”
Kitty Bennett and Kirsten Noyes contributed research. Jeffrey E. Singer contributed reporting.