How To Stay Safe In A Subway Emergency

How To Stay Safe In A Subway Emergency

If you’ve never travelled on a New York City subway, and things start going south (the subway has its fair share of breakdowns and emergencies), it’s important to keep a cool head. It’s especially important if you’re dealing with summer heat, claustrophobia and a tube that isn’t going anywhere. Here’s how to survive this rare ordeal as someone unfamiliar with the subway system.

Daily subway trips are an unavoidable fact of life for millions of daily commuters, and even tourists, so for practical tips for surviving subway hell, we turned to experts in dealing with those other claustrophobic germ tubes of mass transit: aeroplanes.

Flight attendants are of course so much more than (to quote the Replacements) waitresses in the sky: They’re a fully trained, quick-thinking first line of defence in the air, who have to deal with all sorts of mini crises while also smiling and making sure you’re comfortable.

Below, flight attendants give us their best advice for managing a variety of emergency situations you might encounter underground:

Someone is having a panic attack

Claustrophobia, delays or just existing in New York City can conspire to drive people into a frenzy even on a good day. If you or someone nearby starts having a panic attack and hyperventilating, that old trick of giving someone a paper bag to breathe into actually works, said Mandy Smith, who has 10 years experience as a flight attendant and wrote the book Cabin Fever: The Sizzling Secrets of a Virgin Airlines Flight Attendant.

“It makes you re-breathe your own carbon dioxide,” she said, which helps balance your oxygen intake. “They’ll either pass out or it’ll help them. Both ways it helps.” If no paper bag is available, she suggests having the hyperventilating person put a hand on your chest, near the collarbone, and have them follow your breathing.

The flight attendants said the main thing to do with a passenger in the midst of a freakout is to distract them by asking easy questions in a calm voice. Eye contact is helpful, too. So is positioning yourself as an expert on what’s going on ” i.e. reassuring the person that you deal with these kinds of delays all the time and that everything is going to be fine.

“Distract them from what they’re obsessing about in their head,” Smith said. Simple questions help take their mind off the panic, like asking people where they’re going, where they’re from or if this is their regular subway line.

“I make them look around,” said Nikki Thompson, who has been a flight attendant on an international airline for four years. The strategy here is to bring panicking passengers back to the moment. She avoids putting any bad thoughts in their mind (Don’t say things like “The train hasn’t caught fire yet!”). Instead, opt for something straightforward, such as, “”˜Right now your limbs are all intact. Everything around us is OK,’” Thompson suggests.

A fight breaks out or a rider is belligerent

Dumb things happen all the time that can escalate into fights. Smith said she has seen two grown men get into full-on fisticuffs on an aeroplane in a fight that started over a cookie. When someone becomes aggressive like that, flight attendants switch into quick placation mode, which is a wise strategy for subway riders trapped in close quarters, too.

For stopping a fight on a train, the experts suggest a “divide and conquer” method, gradually moving the riders back away from each other while working to defuse the situation.

“You kind of act like an elementary school teacher or kindergarten teacher in those situations,” said Karalee Mulder, who has eight years of experience on international and domestic airlines and created the blog The Flight Attendant Life. “You take an authoritative role a little bit.”

Most times, people are just angry and frustrated and want to be heard, she said. She will squat down to be on their level as she’s speaking to them. “I don’t want to be standing above the passenger ever,” she said. “I always squat down, at eye level or lower, and just let them know that I’m listening.”

On the subway, you’d want to sound calm but official and helpful, so the person you’re talking to doesn’t blow up in your face right away.

Thompson then goes into problem-solving mode. “I have to figure out what it is they need. Where are they coming from? Are they scared of something?” she said. “That’s what it all boils down to, they’re scared of the unknown.”

If someone is truly dangerous, Smith recommends avoiding eye contact, which can escalate the situation, and putting something physically between yourself and the danger. Even a subway pole or an umbrella can help.

Sick passengers

Like that old paper bag breathing trick, asking “is there a doctor in the house?” almost always works too. The density of New York City means the odds your train car will have a doctor, nurse, firefighter, EMT or anyone else with medical training on it is pretty good.

“It’s good to actually speak up, to be the mouth that asks for a doctor,” Thompson said. “It actually has worked out every time.”

If a doctor isn’t available and it’s not clear what’s wrong with them, ask them for medical history or look for a medical ID bracelet. If they can’t speak, the flight attendants suggest looking for medicine in their bag.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) official etiquette posters say that when you’re feeling sick, you should get off the train at the next stop, or contact the conductor (or have someone do it for you), who will wait with you until help arrives.


Fires inside a subway car are rare, but the close quarters could make even a small one dangerous. Flight attendants said it’s crucial to know which type of blaze you’re dealing with first: combustible (clothing, paper, etc.), flammable liquid (oil, grease), or electrical (someone’s laptop burst into flames).

To handle an electrical fire, flight attendants are trained to remove the power source first. You can’t throw water on a grease or oil fire or the flames will just spread; it’s best to use an extinguisher (which you probably won’t have access to, unless you’re this guy) or smother it safely, if possible. You can find the official guidelines here.

For a combustible fire, you should remove anything else that might go up in flames right away: loose clothing, newspapers, for example.

But when in doubt, your biggest priority should be to get away from the fire. Smoke is usually the biggest threat, not the flames themselves. If the subway car starts to fill with smoke, open windows and doors or move to another car ASAP. “You’ve got to get out of the train straight away if you could,” Smith said.

Though the MTA strictly advises against “self-evacuating” from their trains, well, it’s been done before. (And you can find their official evacuation guidelines here, which describe four strategies for getting to safety.)

Important fact: The MTA says you should almost never pull the emergency cord, despite being in a situation you might consider an “emergency. The MTA says to only use it to stop the train “when the motion of the subway presents an imminent danger to life and limb.”

Once the cord is pulled, brakes have to be reset before the train can move again, which in some cases can make the emergency at hand much, much worse.

The heat or air conditioning go kaput

Bad news to those passengers who were stuck in that steamy nightmare subway car video: flight attendants don’t have much help for you.

If the air conditioning dies, they said your only option may be to get comfortable and loosen up any tight clothes, or to find something stiff to fan yourself with (on planes, they recommend the flight safety card).

If the heat kicks it while you’re stuck in the dead of winter, it’s time to make some friends and huddle together for warmth. “I know it’s not very New York of me to say this but you’ve got to get to know the people next to you,” Smith said. “You don’t want to freeze to death.”

Look for the mums

When flight attendants are giving the safety spiel before a flight, they’re not just going over important information: they’re also surveying the crowd to see who might be helpful in an emergency. If shit goes down on the train and you need help, it’s not always a beefy strong guy you should be looking for.

“Parents, mums: they can be the coolest under pressure,” Thompson said. “They can take direction.”

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

Here are the cheapest plans available for Australia’s most popular NBN speed tier.

At Lifehacker, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.