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Gunfire on the 5:33 By: Paul Vitello
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, October 01, 1997


Colin Ferguson opens fire on a rush-hour LIRR train, killing six in a shocking spree


 

The commuter train pulled out of the station carrying people of all kinds home from work on a Wednesday evening -- secretaries and stockbrokers and sellers and buyers and students, and in their laps were bags and bundles, and in their heads were all the thousands of threads of unfinished business that is human life in progress.

When it pulled into the Merillon Avenue station in Garden City, 30 minutes later, that life was over. It was the "before" on the stranded side of a before-and-after dividing line gouged out of the lives of everyone there.

There were only two kinds of people left on the train, the living and the dead.

It is almost impossible to make sense of the acts of a madman. Psychiatrists and historians try. But most often it is left to the survivors and their families to salvage some vestige of meaning from the carnage of a loner like Jeffrey Dahmer or a leader like Pol Pot, or a paranoid gunman like Colin Ferguson, who got on a packed homebound Long Island Rail Road train on Dec. 7, 1993, and shot 25 people at point blank range to settle his imaginary scores with the world.

Six people died and 19 were wounded on the 5:33 out of Penn Station that evening. More might have been shot if two passengers had not tackled Ferguson as he paused to reload his gun.

Here was our homicidal postal worker. Our McDonald's gunman.

Of all the connections that have defined us as Americans in the past quarter century -- regardless of race, religion or time zone -- this was the most terrifying: the realization that at any time, at any place, our lives might end at the hands of a madman with a gun.

It is part of the culture, like jazz or baseball or the opportunity to become incredibly rich. There is the opportunity of sudden death by the Second Amendment.

That Ferguson was a madman was not the universal judgment. A court said he was competent to stand trial, even competent to act as his own attorney. But anyone who saw him pacing before the jury in 1994, talking about the years-long racist government conspiracy against him -- scoffing at the 93-count indictment against him as a fiction based on the fact that "it matches the year 1993" -- could not help but see him that way.

He was probably crazy. Whether he was competent to stand trial, whether there is racism in America, whether and how mental illness coincides with social ills are all interesting questions. But the questions that people really had to answer were tougher than those: How can you be sitting on a train one moment with a shopping bag full of Christmas presents between your feet and the next moment find yourself in the equivalent of a foxhole with the enemy coming over the top, killing you?

How could a man as disturbed as this one obtain a legal license to carry a firearm?

How could this happen? And happen over and over and over again -- in trains and fast food restaurants and post offices and tourist attractions and schools and on the streets every day -- each time triggering the same tired debate about the right to bear arms. We may ponder these questions from the safety of our intact lives. But the survivors and their families have had to tackle them in the flesh, in the trenches.

How they have answered them is as much a part of the story of the Long Island Rail Road Massacre as the massacre itself.

Among the survivors, Kevin McCarthy and his mother, Carolyn McCarthy, are probably the best known -- he for his miraculous recovery from a life-threatening head wound, she for her triple transformation from homemaker to widow, to gun-control advocate, to congresswoman. Her husband, Denis, was killed by the gunman.

Joyce Gorycki and her daughter moved away for a while from Long Island to try to recover from the loss of their husband and father, James, one of the six killed. Then they moved back because this was where they had connections to the world. Joyce is an officer now in a statewide gun-control advocacy group.

Arlene and Jack LoCicero kept a vigil for five days at the bedside of their daughter, Amy LoCicero, whose thoratic artery was severed by one of Ferguson's bullets. Amy was a religious young woman, which had helped sustain her in 1992 when, just married, she lost her 27-year-old husband to pancreatic cancer.

Now the parents struggled to maintain hope for Amy's life, then struggled to let go when they were told there was no hope, then decided on Dec. 12, after the doctors explained for them one more time the meaning of brain death, to donate her heart, kidneys and liver for transplants.

The heart went to an Islip mother of seven, Theresa Caravella, whom Arlene would meet months later. "I was having a difficult time," Arlene said. "And I asked her if I could just hold her because she was so real and all the things that were happening to us were just so surreal ... And Theresa said, 'Remember, the heart that beats in me is the same heart that beat in your womb."'

That touched her. She'll never forget it.

The struggle of all the survivors, in a way, has been to re-establish connections to the world. The psychiatrists all tell you that when violence happens it leaves not only wounds of the flesh but the pain of isolation. How can anyone understand what they have been through? No one can.

It is as if Ferguson, the madman, had been armed not only with bullets but with a contagion that threatened everyone he touched with becoming a stranger in a strange land like himself.

There are survivors who now, five years later, and probably forever, will wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, reliving the moment when they looked up and saw his face.

"It was the most awful thing I ever saw," said Mary Anne Phillips, who was the first one wounded when Ferguson stood up, removed the semi-automatic pistol from his gym bag and began to shoot the people who by some accident of fate were sitting in the places where his mind saw enemies.

In her testimony before the jury, she described the look on Ferguson's face as "searing." Outside in the hall, talking to reporters, she had used another word.

"Evil," she said.

Like many of the survivors, though, Kevin McCarthy still takes the railroad to work and home again. He is married now. He walks stiffly because of his injuries, but was recently seen trotting and weaving through the rush hour crowd at the Merillon Avenue Long Island Rail Road station, trying to catch his train, a bundle under his arm. And from the look of him, there were a hundred things on his mind.


Paul Vitello is a columnist for Newsday.


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