By Courtney Vinopal
As commuters in the tri-state area headed to work on Monday morning, police were hunting for Ahmad Khan Rahami, a 28 year-old man who was suspected of setting off explosives in the New York neighborhood of Chelsea and the New Jersey town of Seaside Park over the weekend. By the time these commuters headed home, Rahami had been arrested in Linden, N.J., and charged with five counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.
No one was killed in the plot to plant and detonate multiple explosive devices across the New York metropolitan area, although 29 were injured in the Chelsea explosion. But for commuters between New York and New Jersey, the proximity of these incidents to major transit lines meant long delays, cancellations, and crowded train cars as the situation unfolded on Monday.
At 5 p.m. on Monday, Penn Station bustled as usual, albeit with heightened security at each entryway. While many long-time New Jersey Transit passengers seemed relatively unfazed by the events, some commuters expressed concern about the city’s safety and the larger implications of the plot.
“Today I was skeptical about getting on the train,” said Jazz Morris, 21, a sociology student that commutes from Trenton to Bloomfield, where she attends Bloomfield College. “Now I don’t know if I want to keep taking it.”
Many trains on Monday were four hours late and Tony Barone, 56, a train dispatcher for Amtrak, said the series of events “disrupted the whole service.” Following reports of an unattended bag around Edison Station in New Jersey, Barone said that Amtrak had to heighten its security even more. But he found that most commuters recovered quickly.
“If you look around, everyone’s acting normal,” he said.
Many passengers were appreciative of the extra vigilance. Malini Swaminathan, 52, a civil engineer, rode into New York via New Jersey Transit’s northeast corridor line Monday morning, passing through Linden, where the shootout took place, and the Elizabeth train station, where five explosive devices were discovered and dismantled by bomb technicians late Sunday night (one did explode, but no one was injured). Swaminathan said passengers were crammed shoulder-to-shoulder Monday morning, and endured long delays. While it was not a comfortable ride, she put trust in the New York City Police Department to handle the situation.
“The cops are great,” she said. “There are so many around.” She was impressed that authorities managed to capture the suspect within hours of releasing his identity to the public. And she said that the cramped train, oddly enough, was a bonding experience for her. She made friends with the woman standing next to her, and they chatted again Monday afternoon as they headed back on the same train.
The incidents did leave some commuters shaken, however. Lamont Blocker, 53, an investment accountant with Prudential, commutes into New York from his home in Willingboro, N.J., each day. He said that his wife was more nervous than he was on Monday, as she followed the news closely while he was at work. The proximity of the explosive devices to the oil refineries in northeast New Jersey did worry him, however.
“You’ve got all these oil refineries on Route Eight and Nine. That’s what’s really concerning because if someone hits those things,” he said. “Elizabeth is a major seaport, and this is a major hub. Everyone here commutes.”
Other commuters looked at the even bigger picture. Jochen Hellbeck, 50, a history professor at Rutgers University, who commuted to New Jersey from his home in Brooklyn, for example, focused on the effect the attacks might have on the American political landscape. Hellbeck, who is originally from Germany, believes Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s controversial rhetoric on immigration fuels acts of violence such as the ones that may have been committed by Rahami.
“I’m actually thinking it could get a lot worse between now and the election,” he said. Given that Rahami was born in Afghanistan, Hellbeck fears that the incident could further embolden Trump’s arguments against letting immigrants into the United States. “If anything, this will cater to [Trump’s] interests,” Hellbeck said.
Kevin Taylor, 43, who works for an environmental contractor, grew up in Elizabeth and commutes regularly to New York. He said this sort of incident is unusual for this area.
“We have crime and violence, but not this type of stuff,” said Taylor.
“The community [in Elizabeth] used to be made up of just a few populations,” he said. “But now we have people coming from all over; Honduran, Ecuadorian, you name it. It’s getting more and more diverse.” Taylor recognized, however, that sometimes this diversity leads to divisiveness, and acts of violence such as the one that took place over the weekend.
“It’s a shame that the [diversity] may have caused these problems,” he said.
Out of all these commuters, Tasos Zambas, 56, a financial consultant, may take the prize for the most expensive trip home over the past few days. On Sunday evening, his train from New York to Edison, N.J. was cancelled after the explosive devices were found in Elizabeth. Zambas paid $120 and took a taxi back to New Jersey. On Monday, he worked from home.
For Zambas, who was in New York during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing as well as the September 11, 2001 attacks, the heightened security presence at Penn Station on Sunday brought back distinct memories. Now that Zambas has a son, he says he tries to work from home when such events arise. But he’s confident that most tri-state commuters will be resilient.
“People forget quickly,” he said. “We’re not going to change our entire lifestyle just because something like this happened.”