‘In one split second things can change so quickly:’ Sunset Park reacts to subway shooting

cops stand with caution tape at sunset park station after shooting
Police closed off the entrance to the 36th Street subway station in Sunset Park after an early-morning shooting injured at least 22 people on Tuesday.
Photo by Lloyd Mitchell

The morning rush through Sunset Park was violently disrupted on Tuesday morning when shots rang out at the 36th Street Subway station, injuring at least 22 people, according to police.

Cops cordoned off the station’s entrance and closed part of Fourth Avenue to traffic as police, firefighters, and federal agents flooded the scene after the early-morning incident. The station was filled with smoke from what officials said was a detonated smoke grenade.

Police say they are searching for 62-year-old Frank R. James in relation to the attack. James is accused of firing 33 gunshots after setting off smoke grenades on a Manhattan-bound N train. The NYPD identified James, who has addresses in Philadelphia and Wisconsin, as a person-of-interest after finding keys to a U-Haul van and a credit card in James’ name, which had recently been used to rent the van in Philadelphia. Cops later found the van on Kings Highway at West 4th Street in Gravesend, though James remains on the lam.

Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said that James had made a number of social media postings of late on “general topics of concern,” including rants about Mayor Eric Adams, New York City, and homeless people. Sewell said that the mayor’s security has been beefed up in response.

The attack has had a chilling effect on tight-knit Sunset Park.

Carina and Veronica Rosales, students who live nearby and attend college in the city, were getting coffee when they saw the street erupt in chaos.

“We just heard helicopters flying around and then people told us what happened,” Veronica told Brooklyn Paper. “Out of nowhere, in one split second things can change so quickly.”

The shooting was “a shock,” Carina added, because the neighborhood is usually very quiet.

“We called our mother right away to make sure she’s OK because she usually takes the train around this time,” Veronica said.

ems with stretcher in sunset park
An emergency responder prepared a stretcher as police, firefighters, and federal agents investigated a shooting at the 36th Street subway station in Sunset Park on Tuesday morning. Photo by Lloyd Mitchell

Some local schools, including Sunset Park High School, directly across the street from the subway station, were on lockdown following the incident and as of noon, school lockdowns spread about a mile in each direction. The New York City Police Department are searching for the suspect, whom they said was spotted wearing a gas mask and an orange construction vest on the scene.

First responders found several undetonated devices at the station, according to the city’s Fire Department, but NYPD later said there were no active explosives at the site. 

“I think it makes us more aware of our surroundings,” Veronica said. “It was somebody with a MTA vest, that makes us more cautious to see who are we surrounded with.”

Local Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes encouraged constituents who were on the scene or had friends and family who had been caught up in the attack and needed help to contact her office directly on Twitter

“This is still very much an ongoing investigation,” she said. “We have to follow the facts when it comes to public safety and the facts aren’t all clear yet. Avoid 3rd Ave to 5th Ave from 20th St to 40th St. We’ll share updates as we get them. If you are concerned about the welfare of someone who may have been affected by the event and are unable to contact them, please call 311. From outside of NYC, you may call 212-639-9675.”

Sunset Park, which sits along the Brooklyn waterfront between Bay Ridge to the south and Park Slope to the north, is home to large, working-class Asian and Hispanic communities, with dozens of shops and restaurants making up Brooklyn’s bustling Chinatown within the neighborhood. The tight-knit community rallied to take care of it own during the pandemic, which left many of the area’s older immigrant population struggling as city resources failed to materialize.

John Butsikares speaks to press on the corner of 35th Street and Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park following the shooting. Photo by Paul Frangipane

“Everyone was getting on, we still didn’t know what happened, there was confusion, it was just a scary moment,” said 15-year-old John Butsikares, who was on the subway headed to school at the time of the attack. “The train conductor was yelling for medical assistance at 25th Street, and then on 36th he was telling everyone to get on the train.”

Everyone was told to evacuate at 25th Street, a few blocks north of the 36th Street stop, Bustikares said. He wasn’t sure if the incident occurred on the train he was riding on, but saw people being carried off the train and onto the crowded platform at the 25th Street station.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has halted all service of the D/N/R lines in all of Brooklyn and parts of Manhattan as the investigation continues, and said delays were also expected on the B, D, F, N, Q and R lines. 

“It sucks because people need to go to work and they won’t be able to today,” said Jeffrey Valencia, who lives around the corner from the station and works at nearby Industry City. “It does make me feel a little nervous knowing the guy who started this could still be around.”

Officials continue to investigate a shooting in the 36th Street subway station on Tuesday morning. At least 22 people were injured by the shooting and by a smoke grenade, officials said during a press conference. Photo by Paul Frangipane

At a press conference at the scene, officials reported 16 injuries, with 10 victims recovering at local hospitals. Of those victims, five are in “critical but stable” condition, authorities initially reported, but that number jumped to 22 at around 4 pm. Sewell said the shooting is not currently being investigated as an act of terrorism.

“We are truly fortunate that this was not significantly worse than it is,” Sewell said at a later press conference at 1 Police Plaza.

As the N express train pulled into the 36th Street station in Sunset Park at 8:24 a.m., the on-board shooter put on a gas mask, pulled a canister out of his bag that filled the train with smoke, and fired at commuters in the train car and on the platform, Sewell told reporters. The suspect fired 33 shots in all, police said.

Cops also found a Glock 17 9 mm handgun, extended magazines, gasoline, a hatchet, and fireworks at the scene. Officials say it’s clear that the suspect boarded the train with the intent to do harm.

“This is an active-shooter situation right now in the city of New York,” Gov. Kathy Hochul added, pleading for “no more mass shootings.”

The governor said she and other city officials have been in constant communication with Mayor Eric Adams, who is isolating after testing positive for COVID-19 over the weekend.

“We’re praying for all New Yorkers who were injured or affected by today’s attack,” Adams said in a statement. “We will not allow New Yorkers to be terrorized even by a single individual. The NYPD is searching for the suspect at large, and we will find him, but we ask the public to come forward with any information that may help us in this investigation.”

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chair and CEO Janno Lieber praised transit workers and riders for helping out fellow New Yorkers in crisis.

“On 9/11 I stood on 4th Avenue and watched people, New Yorkers, come back from that tragedy. I watched New Yorkers help each other and storekeepers walk out and give people water,” Lieber said during the afternoon press conference.

“That was the same thing we saw on the platform today. We saw New Yorkers in a difficult situation, an emergency, helping each other,” he added. “That’s the subway riders, that’s who New Yorkers are.”

Speaking to press afterward, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said the recently-passed state budget did not provide sufficient funding for addressing the root causes of violence in the city, and that simply sending more police officers into the subway system isn’t going to work.

“Where is the rest of the plan, where is the rest of the funding that’s needed,” Williams said during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon. “I’m glad that there are law enforcement workers, I’m glad that there were MTA workers, people who were there to assist. But every time we try to put it all on law enforcement, it’s not gonna get to what we need.”

In a statement, Borough President Antonio Reynoso, who was also on the scene after the shooting, commended the community for coming together in a time of crisis.

“This morning, Sunset Park commuters were assaulted by a senseless act of violence. As always in a time of crisis, Brooklynites experienced the swift reaction of our city’s first responders, including the MTA, NYPD, and FDNY,” Reynoso said. “I am deeply heartened to see the Sunset Park community coming together during this time of tragedy – Brooklyn stands with you. I will continue to work with local authorities and elected officials as more details of the attack are confirmed and the perpetrator is found.”

cops at subway station
It was all-hands-on-deck for local police, fire, and other emergency service officials Tuesday after at least 22 people were injured in a mass shooting in Sunset Park.Photo by Lloyd Mitchell

Edwin Perez, a school psychologist intern at neighboring special needs school P721K, said he saw the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

“I started looking out the window, then I saw a lot of police cars, I saw a lot of people looking fidgety or disoriented,” the Williamsburg resident told Brooklyn Paper. “I thought something was happening but I got to keep working, but maybe 20 minutes after that we heard an announcement from the school saying there was an incident at the 36 Street station and we were gonna be in sheltering mode.”

Perez said his school was in lockdown from about 8:50 am to 2:20 pm Tuesday and, while the kids seemed unfazed by what was happening outside of their classrooms, teachers and other faculty were rattled by the incident. Perez himself was at the 36th Street station 20 minutes prior to the shooting, and now feels especially uneasy about his commute to work.

“It’s horrifying that New York has to go through something like this. This is the capital of the world,” he said. “It should be very safe for us and for everyone.”

Additional reporting by Kevin Duggan, Paul Frangipane and Lloyd Mitchell

Update (April 13): The shooting’s prime suspect, Frank James, was apprehended Wednesday in Manhattan’s East Village after a more-than-24-hour manhunt.