Turnstile Safety: N.Y. Subway Turnstiles Could Be Deadly During Fires, Attacks

NEW YORK_A revolving-door turnstile installed in hundreds of New York subway stations could become a deadly bottleneck during a fire or terrorist attack, critics of the devices said.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority belatedly asked the state last fall for relief from nine different building codes that would ordinarily ban the floor-to-ceiling turnstiles, which some say could slow evacuations.

"They'll be stuck behind these gates like third-class passengers on the Titanic," said City Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr.

New York City Transit spokesman Paul Fleuranges called that characterization unfair. Revolving turnstiles have been in the system for decades and have never posed a problem, he said.

"I do not think there is such a risk. We would not have put them in," he said in an e-mail message.

The High Exit/Entry Turnstiles, or HEETs, were initially designed to foil farebeaters. You cannot hop over them or break through their steel bars, and, at 22 inches (56 centimeters) wide, they are too narrow for more than one adult. They are also too small for baby strollers.

Backups at the turnstiles in some stations are common during rush hours.

Most subway stations have several exits, including wider gates that allow for quick evacuation, but on some train platforms those alternate outlets require a walk of a city block or more.

The MTA has for months been installing "panic bars" near many of the turnstiles that will allow passengers to throw open swinging gates during an emergency. By the year's end, 1,560 of the devices will be in place, Fleuranges said.

New York's state department granted the MTA the code exemptions it sought in a pair of decisions last spring.

In a June ruling, the department's codes division director, Ronald E. Piester, said strict compliance with fire prevention codes would be unnecessary because of other safety measures that are in place.

Fire Department spokesman Farrell Sklerov said fire officials had also discussed the turnstiles with the MTA, but had no outstanding concerns.

Ed Watt, secretary-treasurer of Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents subway workers, said the MTA should conduct more frequent training to ensure workers know the best way to evacuate people in an emergency. He said the authority should also install gates at every exit that can be pushed open easily by fleeing passengers.

"If there is a fire, or worse, a terrorist attack, they will be death traps," he said of the HEET turnstiles.

<<Associated Press WorldStream -- 07/24/06>>