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December 2005

by Ray Sanchez October 24, 2005 - The remote-controlled bombs were to be concealed in suitcases and baby strollers. At least that's what an overseas informant told authorities about a recent terror plot against the subway.

But Lynn Zelvin's dog, a German Shepard named Kona, may have been mistaken for the world's first suicide pooch the other morning. A police officer followed Zelvin, who is blind, into the 110th Street station on the Broadway line.

"You can't have that dog in the subway," he said.

"It's a guide dog," she said.

"You need a special license for that dog. Where is it?"

"There is no such thing."

Zelvin turned and walked to the platform.

"I thought he was a crank," she said. "But he followed me and started harassing me for evidence that this was a trained dog. I said, 'You're violating the American with Disabilities Act. Are you aware of it?'"

"Oh, you have a disability," the cop said.

"You know what a guide dog is?" she asked.

"I'm just doing my job," the cop answered.

Kona was no bomber. The Broadway line was safe.

"I figured the cop thought I was walking in with an attack dog that was going to take over the subway," Zelvin said.

But the misunderstanding occurred in a city that Zelvin described as the most accessible place in the nation for a blind person comfortable with using public transportation.

"There are people who chose to live or move here because the rest of the country is so car-dependent," said Zelvin, 46, who has been taking the trains since her teens.

Still, Zelvin and other advocates for disabled riders said the subway's increasing reliability on High Entrance/Exit Turnstiles, or HEETS, is putting lives in danger. Also known as high-wheels, the turnstiles are impossible to crawl under or scramble over. They were designed to keep the transit agency from losing even a single fare as it permanently shuts down station booths throughout the city.

"If there was a fire, I'd shove my dog into the HEET and, if her tail got caught, we'd un-catch it and she'd be yelling and we'd get out," she said.

For people stuck in even a small fire underground, the immediate reaction is to rush to the nearest exit. Now imagine the nearest exit for a throng of panicked riders is a wall of HEETS. Now throw in a rider with a motorized wheelchair and another with a guide dog.

"If you put a HEET in a nightclub, the fire department would shut you down," said Michael Harris, campaign coordinator for the Disabled Riders Coalition.

On Friday morning, seven subway lines were halted by an electrical fire at the West Fourth Street station in Manhattan. The smoky fire started in an underground storage room. Seven firefighters had minor injuries. Riders complained of confusion and conflicting instructions from transit workers.

"If I had been at West Fourth Street, I would have had a major problem, given that all three elevators there are out of service," said Harris, who uses a 350-pound motorized wheelchair.

"You have a lot people who couldn't get out or couldn't get in," including firefighters with heavy equipment, he said. "I do worry what would happen in an evacuation. What's supposed to happen? I'm not even sure."

Harris said NYC Transit's own evacuation information offers little help.

"The evacuation plan brochure says disabled riders should wait for assistance," he said. "OK, wait for assistance from whom? Am I waiting for Larry Reuter to show up and say, 'Hello, have fun dying in the fire?' What am I waiting for?"

Lawrence Reuter is president of NYC Transit, the architect of the booth closing plan. In fact, a half dozen booths were shuttered last month on the fourth anniversary of 9/11.

"That sends a very powerful message about rider safety," Harris said.